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Back roads monuments to a tragic fire and railway accident

This week Back Roads Bill takes us to two poignant memorials on the back roads

Accidents do happen and on the back roads.

The danger of being entrapped or burned over and possibly killed or seriously injured by a wildfire is a very real threat for people living, working or visiting rural areas subject to wildfires; especially with the advent of climate change and extreme weather episodes.

Sometimes there may be no chance to easily escape an approaching fire.

It has also been a season of wildfires particularly in northwestern Ontario. But some fires are planned and purposely set, called “prescribed burns (PB).”

The Incident

It is a tranquil and sombre walk through the jack pine and black spruce, true boreal at this latitude; like most trails, it is leading you to somewhere. The trees know. But you know why because where you parked the incident is explained. What you discover is far from civilization and the tragedy is worth remembering. Someone was thinking when they created this compelling memorial.

Forty-two years ago, on Aug. 22, 1979, something went tragically wrong when a PB was initiated.

The end of the summer was near, work would soon end and school would be on their minds for six of the seven.

Then it happened.

Five crews, comprising 47 people, had set a “prescribed burn” in a 101 hectares (250 acres) block of Crown land to clear slash and ground cover at the west end of Lake Esnagami, northwest of Nakina, north of Geraldton (Greenstone). It was a routine procedure designed to prepare the area for timber replanting as part of a ministry of natural resources land improvement program for replanting.

Just past noon, a number of prescribed burn fires were ignited, but suddenly the wind shifted and minutes later seven young people were dead.

The seven included two provincial junior rangers Gordon Reid, 17, and Danny Fitzgerald, 17, both of Toronto. Jane Spurgeon, 25, of Oshawa, who was preparing to become a forestry technician in the private sector and Wanda Parise, 16, of Jellicoe. Colleen Campbell, 16, Kenneth Harkes, 18, and Anthony Glen Thompson, 17, all of Geraldton and all part of a provincial Summer Experience program.

All were there to witness the prescribed burn.

Gaius Wesley, 52, of Longlac, a fire-control technician for the ministry and supervisor of the crew, survived the fire, but he suffered burns to 25 per cent of his body. With the students, he had the responsibility of igniting one of the fire lines for the “U” shaped prescribed burn. He soon realized other fire lines were sweeping towards his crew.

At the inquest that followed it was determined Wesley escaped death by moving into a swamp near the fire site. He shouted at them, he stated, but for some reason, the others failed to follow. They were found under a small stand of balsam trees about 45 m or 150’ from the wetland where Wesley sought refuge. They died from asphyxiation as the prescribed burn fire swept through their area.

Al Stinson worked for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry for more than forty years and one of his many project assignments as a forestry professional was to coordinate a prescribed burn.

He explains the thinking behind them.

It was a sad story when it happened and your contact has brought back some distant memories of that time.

It was hard to believe it happened and it was probably so unnecessary. I was looking at a statistic that was not a big surprise to me, the stat showed that wildland firefighters are sixty times more likely to die on the job than structural firefighters.

When I was planning prescribed burn's with the fire guys we were in the heyday of the prescribed burn program as a silvicultural tool, we were using fire as a site prep tool in clear cuts as well as understory burning is shelterwood stands.

It was also a great training opportunity for fire staff.

The fire program would pay the regular wages of the fire staff involved and the forestry program covered all additional costs and any overtime.

With this formula, we were able to keep costs to a reasonable amount per hectare (ha). Unfortunately, the program went to full cost recovery and the costs per ha.

The incident and associated legal proceedings brought a moratorium on prescribed burns. Stinson explained what that meant to forestry professionals.

Prescribed burns became prohibitive as a result we lost fire as a silvicultural tool and the fire program lost the training opportunity.

This has also resulted in the loss of expertise to do these very technically demanding burns.

Putting fire in an unharvested 120-year poplar stand requires a lot of planning and technical expertise. There are still a few small fires for ecological purposes but the current prescribed burn program pales by comparison to the program of the '80s and '90s.

I believe fire is a very important ecological tool and I suspect that at some point prescribed burns for forestry purposes will make a comeback. 

It will take some policy changes to make it affordable and the development of the technical expertise will flow from these changes.

When properly structured a prescribed burn program can be a win, win. 

It can be a great silvicultural tool that emulates natural processes, and a great training opportunity for the fire program. Let's hope the tragedy of the Nakina burn never happens again.

At present there is a government prescribed burn program, see the schedule and the rationale here.

The tragedy was first caused by a directional wind shift but the outcome was a direct result of a lack of communication and associated protocols. It remains a case study.

Here is the contemporary prescribed burn planning manual. See section 3.3.10 on page 15 and the communication section.

The Site

The memorial site conjured up many feelings when I went for a visit.

Ben Jewiss recently left Nakina. He was the principal at their small school and is a former student of mine. He lived within and explored the backcountry for all the rights reasons on his motorcycle.

He shared his reflections on the incident.

The deaths of the junior fire rangers at Esnagami Lake is doubly tragic, not only for young lives full of potential to have been so quickly snuffed out but also for the sense of pain and fear that they must have felt in their last moments and that is almost tangible when one visits the site.

The calmness and serenity of the memorial today belie the terror in the tragedy that took place there.

Many people, even here, don't know the stories of the students or of the train crew, but someone does, which is why both memorial sites are so clearly lovingly maintained, and I do, and now you do, and in a way that's good enough for me. 

Canadian National Railway tribute

We visited another compelling memorial in the area. A Canadian National (CN) Railway tribute stands near Nakina.

On July 19, 1992, a CN westward freight train derailed four locomotives and eight freight cars. The subgrade underneath the track at the derailment site had collapsed into Green Lake prior to the arrival of the train.

As the front of the train travelled onto the portion of the track suspended in midair, it fell into the lake, submerging the four locomotives.

Two members of the three-man train crew were fatally injured and the third sustained serious injuries. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada determined that the derailment was caused by a breach in a beaver dam.

Where some place names come from

The Ontario Geographic Names Board manages and defines the treatment of 220,000 geographical names of places and geographical features.

In 2005, seven lakes, north of Lake Esnagami were named in the victims’ honour by the government. The regional MNRF office worked with the families to select features that did not appear to carry any other local or indigenous name.

In these cases there was no precedent for the use of family and/or first names, so the choice was that of the families. Chosen was Gordon Reid Lake, Danny Lake, Colleen Lake, Jane Spurgeon Lake, Andy Thompson Lake, Ken Harkes Lake and Wanda Lake.

At the site there is a spiral memorial with the names engraved reaching up to the sky, perhaps timeless, suggesting the retrospect and the fullness of lives lost; a tribute well done.

We learn from and remember accidents. This is a back roads destination worthy of a visit and I trust I can be there again on the 50th anniversary. 

Please consider clicking on the map as a remembrance to them they are not forgotten on the back roads.