That would be bad enough at any time but just a few days earlier, the region’s forest fire index was rated as ‘extreme,’ meaning an untoward spark could set the tinder-dry forest on fire.
Understandably, it unnerved homeowners living in close proximity to the razed buildings. And with the danger of fire spreading to the nearby forests, the unease was even more widespread.
Our summer home – a modest cottage that’s uninhabited for most of the year and is surrounded on three sides by woods – is only a few kilometres away and could have been in range had fire spread to the forest.
Thankfully, wildfires like those in B.C. and last year in Fort McMurray aren’t common in P.E.I., but they’re not without precedent, either. A combination of drought-like conditions and a persistent wind that blew across the province in 1960 proved it could certainly happen here.
West Prince on Fire is the title of a chapter in A Newspaperman Remembers, a book chronicling his 38 years reporting in Prince County by the late J. Elmer Murphy, a long-time editor and publisher of The Journal-Pioneer.
For three weeks starting in mid-August, fire stories from across the Island dominated newspaper headlines. But one fire in West Prince that had been smouldering for several days flared into “violent activity” and was burning out of control by Aug. 29, Murphy recalled. The main area was between Mount Pleasant and Portage, north of the Western Road, but fires were also burning in the Port Hill area.
On Aug. 31, Murphy flew over the devastated area in an Air Force Dakota with provincial officials including then Premier Walter Shaw. “It was an amazing sight,” he wrote. “There must have been a dozen fires burning at various places.”
A more detailed account of the West Prince fires can be found at thelmaphillips.ca, an archive of newspaper clippings meticulously kept by Vivian Phillips, who ran a general store with her husband, Harold, in Freeland. Phillips’ daughter, Thelma, transcribed stories from her mother’s scrapbook and posted them online several years ago.
In her introduction, Thelma Phillips noted that at the peak of the emergency, there were 1,000 men fighting the fires including 500 troops from Gagetown, N.B. Newspaper accounts of the day suggested it was the largest firefighting effort in Island history.
The Phillips’ clippings offer a great chronology of the fires and the people who worked so hard to ensure no lives were lost. It’s a fascinating read that shows the devastating consequences of carelessly or wilfully setting a fire that could spread to the forest.
Not all forest fires are man-made, of course, but a great many of them are. One of the 1960 fires, for example, resulted from an attempt to burn out a wasp’s nest.
A check of the forest fire index in West Prince this week shows the risk is no longer “extreme” but it is still “high,” meaning all burning permits are invalid.
A West Prince fire chief recently cautioned that when conditions are tinder-dry, even seemingly harmless activities like smoking and barbecuing require vigilance.
When it comes to preventing forest fires when the risk index is extreme, common sense is always the best firewall.
- Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.