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Meet a fire rescuer who's saving people and cottages from the French River fires

Shawn Rae is part of the network of police and FireRangers who are helping keep people and property safe from wildfires

By Stephanie Johnson, Parry Sound North Star

BRITT — When it comes to evacuations, the experience can be just as frustrating for those trying to help as it is for the evacuees they are assisting.

Since Friday, July 20, Shawn Rae, a member of the Anishinabek Police Services, has worked to pluck stranded canoeists and kayakers from various waterways, as well as escort evacuees off their property because of the Key River forest fire. The Parry Sound North Star shared Rae's story this week.

Along with Rae and his team, others providing door-to-door evacuation and security have included Parry Sound MNR conservation officers, members of the North Bay OPP Save Unit, Killarney OPP, West Parry Sound OPP, Northeast OPP and French River Provincial Park officers.

Rae was tasked to help boaters, because of his local knowledge of the off-channel waterways within the evacuation area.

Rae said he’s sympathetic to those people who don’t want to go, but insists police wouldn’t be demanding the public leave if it weren’t an absolute necessity.

“It’s almost been as frustrating for us as it has been for the people being evacuated,” Rae said Monday afternoon. “We spoke to one elderly couple who were totally exhausted after spending the last two days fighting the fire around their cottage. They saved the building, but every tree, every blade of grass around that building was burned. Three other cottages in that neighbourhood of the north shore (of the eastern outlet) were lost.”

Rae said the fire “jumped” the Key River just east of Key Harbour before proceeding north, up the shore of Georgian Bay into Whistler Bay eastern outlet, where it's progressively headed toward the mouth of the French River.

Rae said on Sunday he and his crew picked up nine boaters in one group and two in another group that were right “in the smoke zone.”

“We had to get them out of there because of health issues. The group of nine were a youth group. They had no idea where the fire even was, to escape. The group leader made the decision and called the police,” he said.

Depending on the wind direction, Rae said, in some places the smoke is quite thick and some of the smoke “you don’t want to go through because it’s flammable temperatures.”

One family, Rae said, were asked to leave their cottage and told not to head upriver, because it was too dangerous; they were advised to go out to Georgian Bay and through Britt.

“I look out, and there they’re going, up the river — a man with his wife and small baby. He was going to take them through two to three kilometres of smoke … just then an OPP boat came out of the smoke and turned them around.”

As of Sunday, July 22, Rae said, there is a total evacuation from Henvey Inlet waterway north to the French River Provincial Park.

“Everyone north of that, right up to the mouth of the French River, (are being evacuated). There’s quite a few full-time residents in there that aren’t going to be pleased with leaving. But they’ve been right in the smoke all night, for the last three or four days; sometimes it’s thick, sometimes it’s bearable.”

Rae said he’s in absolute awe of the job the men and women with the Ontario FireRangers have done since the fire broke out on July 18.

Between the rough terrain, the cumbersome equipment, and the high temperatures — both from the elements and the fire itself — members of the Ontario FireRangers go through it all.

“Sunday I spoke with a crew who had just arrived from the East Coast who were attaching sprinklers to cottages to protect them, while the water bombers continued their attack on the eastern outlet North of the Key River. These fire crews are dropped in by helicopter to fight a blaze and endure the elements, all the while protecting property and the environment. They struggle with heavy equipment through rugged terrain. 

"They have one tough job to do in the sweltering heat and conditions, and we complain about a few deer flies,” he said with a shrug and a chuckle.

By and large, Rae said, a majority of the public is cognizant of the dire situation and leave when asked — though hesitantly.

“Most people are very understanding, but they’re also very reluctant and will come up with every excuse. One 80-year-old man said, ‘I’ll just walk the shoreline; I’ll be OK,’” Rae said, shaking his head. “It’s not the fire that going to kill you — it’s the smoke. And the flames were 100 feet behind his cottage at that time.”