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Reporter’s Blog: It was a miracle no one died the day Cobalt nearly burned to the ground

More than 60 buildings were lost on a hot and windy afternoon in what is considered one of the worst urban fires in Northern Ontario’s history

It was one of those things that some Northern Ontario reporters start a conversation with "Where were you the day that ...." and then they go on to describe some odd occurrence from days past. I'm thinking back to the infamous Cobalt fire. 

That Victoria Day long-weekend Monday in 1977 began nicely enough. It was a sunny day, with enough gusting winds that I was inspired to go with my daughter to the big field on Theriault Boulevard in Timmins, overlooking Airport Road. It's where Timmins High and Vocational School is now located. 

I was teaching my daughter the fun of flying a kite on a windy day.

As a news reporter, I was obliged to carry a little Motorola pager those days. It was an irritating little device that squawked with a telephone message whenever somebody called our news line. 

This time the voice was familiar. It was news director Paul Scott from radio station CJTT in New Liskeard. In those days, before the internet, it was beneficial to stay in touch with a network of small town reporters across the North. 

Paul Scott was one of those guys you could count on to fill you in if a major story was happening in his area. His message was clear enough; there was a bad fire happening in Cobalt. 

I racked my brain wondering what building it could be, since most buildings in Cobalt were residential. It could be a grocery store. It could be one of the historic taverns in the old silver town. Either way, I knew I had to take Scott's message seriously. 

Daughter and I jumped into the car and drove home. I called the CJTT radio news line, knowing that Scott would be there. 

He advised that I would want to drive down to Cobalt right away. 

"How bad is the fire?" I asked, thinking that fires can be easily extinguished in the two and a half hours it would take to drive to Cobalt.

"Well we've lost about 30 buildings and it is getting worse..." Scott responded. What!!??

I forget what I said next, but I knew I could barely believe my ears as he outlined how a minor fire in one building close to downtown had been whipped by high winds into a major conflagration. 

Driving east on Highway 101 and then south of Highway 11 was uneventful, except for urgent reports from the Broadcast News service on the car radio. Approaching Earlton, there is a short highway bridge that spans the Ontario Northland railway tracks. The bridge is elevated and from that vantage point over the flat landscape, there was a large greyish black plume of smoke on the horizon, almost 40 kilometres away. Cobalt was indeed burning.  

Veteran North Bay Nugget reporter John R. Hunt, who lived in Cobalt, wrote some years later how he was on the scene minutes after the fire siren sounded. Hunt witnessed the initial fire involving an old warehouse near Lang Street and watched as the wind carried a flaming piece of debris across the road, setting another building on fire. 

All that afternoon, nearly 500 firefighters from Cobalt and every nearby town fought the fires, with a failing water supply. They watched as home after home went up in flames. Private citizens with pickup trucks raced from house to house to salvage pieces of furniture, couches, dining tables, fridges and stoves which were then hauled off to the Cobalt hockey arena, to be claimed days later.

Overhead, at one point mid-afternoon, forest fire water bombers were called in to help stop the flames from spreading. It worked. 

I remember arriving in the late afternoon with a couple of other Timmins reporters. We were stopped on Highway 11B at a roadblock at the bridge at North Cobalt. The OPP officer at first would not let us pass, but when we had five reporters who all agreed to ride in one vehicle, he let us enter Cobalt.

It was a bizarre sight. Walking along the road we noticed long straight lines of charred material on the pavement and sidewalks. These were burnt power lines that had fallen from utility poles. In another area, there was a long line of ash on the road. As we followed it we came upon a brass fire nozzle and realized the line of ash was an abandoned fire hose. 

Most of the fire was out by late afternoon, but there was a smokey haze everywhere. Some buildings continued to burn. Despite the horrific scene, there seemed a sense of gladness among many people. Yes, fire had gutted about a quarter of the town. A hotel, a school, two service stations, several stores and dozens of homes had been destroyed. More than 60 buildings were lost. It was a terrible thing.

But the really good news was that no one had died. No one was even seriously hurt. People would talk about that for days afterward. 

Later that week, Ontario Northland Railway began the inaugural run of the Northlander TEE train service, from Timmins to Toronto. I rode the train with several other reporters and dignitaries including Northern Affairs Minister Leo Bernier, known those days as Leo, King of the North. 

As the train approached Cobalt, it slowed down. Suddenly all conversation stopped as people looked out the train windows to see the extent of the damage. The celebratory train journey had become quite sombre. 

Bernier had the train stop at the Cobalt station, just down the street from where the fire began. He got off the train for several minutes to look around the burned out area and then made a statement about how the province would be stepping up with relief funding for fire victims. 

Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com. He covers health care in Northern Ontario.




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Len Gillis, local journalism initiative reporter

About the Author: Len Gillis, local journalism initiative reporter

Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com covering health care in northeastern Ontario and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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