MNRF water bombers called into battle fire that started Sunday

Matawatchan – A fire near Centennial Lake in Greater Madawaska Township forced the evacuation of seasonal residents around the lake on Sunday as Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) crews, up to three water bombers, township firefighters and firefighters from neighbouring municipalities worked to battle the blaze.

“The MNRF is in charge of the fire scene now,” Mayor Rob Weir said Monday morning. “When the water bombers are called in, the MNRF is in charge.”

The fire, which started on an island and spread quickly to the mainland, resulted in the evacuation of an area around the lake. Precautionary evacuation areas were: Black Mountain Estates, Little Bay Lane, Airds Lake Road behind Snider’s Tent and Trailer Park and Snider’s Tent and Trailer Park. On Monday the evacuation order was extended to today (Wednesday).

A release by the township on Monday morning said the township fire department and the MNRF were working together to assess the size of the fire and coordinating the use of water bombers.

“It remains critical that residents and by-standers remain clear of the scene to allow our teams to do the work they need,” the township release stated.

Mike Coates was one of the first to see the fire from his home along the other side of the lake. Along with his neighbour, they went across the lake to see what was happening on the island. It was about 2:30 on Sunday afternoon.

“I think we were the first boat out on the scene,” he said. “It is an island across from me, but a far way away. I was not worried about ash or embers.”

When they went across, he said it was clear to see the fire was spreading on the dead undergrowth.

“We noticed it was all the underbrush probably from the storm last year that was burning. A lot of the tall pine trees continued to be green and survive,” he said. “It is not absolutely dry out there. It is the dead stuff that is burning.”

The men had taken fire extinguishers, but when they got across the lake, they realized it was too large for them to deal with.

“It started on an island. Within two hours it had hopped the island to the land where the trailer park is,” Mr. Coates said.

There are spots where the island is about 50 feet from shore, he said.

Mr. Coates noted the island, which is 13 acres, is privately owned and there were people on the island on Saturday.

“I understand they were doing milling, which creates a lot of dust,” he said. “But that is hearsay.”

However, he was able to see the fire had started close to a fire pit. This leads him to believe the fire was due to human action, however unintentional.

“There was no lightning that day,” he said. “And there is a fire ban in all of Renfrew County.”

The island is owned privately and there are no trespassing signs there as well.  The other hectares which were burning were both Crown land and privately owned, he believes.

There are more seasonal properties nearby, he added.

They saw firefighters responding on Sunday afternoon and then the water bombers came in until dusk.

“It looked like a war zone, honestly,” he said.

By Monday, it was hard to see from his cottage with all the smoke. He said it was not possible to see flames anymore, but he knew it was burning because there were plumes of smoke.

“I have a bird’s eye view,” he said. “It is directly across the lake from me.”

The fire moved quite rapidly, he said, noting he was able to see the winds propel the flame along on Sunday.

“Unfortunately, there are some cottagers in the area who had to evacuate,” he said.

Luckily, there was no one on the island and the area is pretty remote and isolated. However, there are many properties and homes in the nearby area, he said.

“It is very easy for a spark to go across the narrow passage of water to an area where there are many more permanent and seasonal homes,” he added.

By Monday afternoon, Mr. Coates said it appeared the fire was only smouldering and the water bombers had been on the scene for most of the afternoon.

“I think they have it under control,” he said. “If it is not out, there are only embers.”

He has lived on the lake and owned his home there for 17 years.

“I’ve never seen fires like this in the area,” he said. “I had never seen how fire actually spreads until this. The wind was strong from the north and it just propelled the fire along.”

At the same time, he is thankful the situation was not worth.

“We were probably very lucky the fire was in the spring, not the summer,” he said. “All the underbrush is what burnt. The large pines have survived.”

Mr. Coates is well-known to many in Renfrew County through his bid to unseat Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke MP Cheryl Gallant for the party nomination a few years ago. A long-time political insider, he has had a cottage in the riding for some time.

MNRF On Scene

According to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry website, the fire was reported to the MNRF on Sunday at 5:47 p.m. The fire encompassed 50 hectares. Updates noted a water bomber was on scene on Monday with two more on the way.

The township issued an information release on Sunday noting the township fire department responded to a call regarding a fire on Centennial Lake which then expanded to shore.

“Currently about 50 hectares of land is affected by the fire,” the release stated. “Our fire department and the Ministry of Natural Resources are working together to extinguish the fire and prevent further spread of the wildland fire.”

The release noted the township, in coordination with the Ontario Provincial Police, have evacuated the surrounding areas of seasonal residents with a 24-hour evacuation notice. The township is in a level 2 fire ban where no burning of any kind is allowed.

In speaking to the Leader, Mayor Weir said there is almost no cell coverage in the area. As mayor he said he was allowing the professionals to handle the situation and deal with the fire, adding he was being updated.

“I took food and water to our firefighters on the scene,” he said, adding he was appreciative of the hard work of the local firefighters and the MNRF team.

An interactive forestry fire map from the MNRF showed a wide area of Ontario stretching from north of Timmins to Peterborough was in an extreme fire danger rating. Fires were burning in many areas north of Timmins. On Monday there were also two fires in Algonquin Park. One fire, listed as Algonquin Park 7 is 2.1 hectares and not under control. The other, listed as Algonquin Park 6, is 18 hectare and not under control. They started on Saturday. The Centennial Lake fire was known as Pembroke 1.

With forest fires burning in many parts of Canada, including in Quebec, Environment Canada issued an air quality statement, noting smoke is causing poor air quality and visibility. People with lung disease, such as asthma, heart disease, older adults, children, pregnant women or those who work outdoors were considered at higher risk of experiencing health effects because of wildfire smoke.

Mayor Weir optimistic and grateful

On Tuesday afternoon by press time, Mayor Weir was feeling both optimistic and grateful as the fire situation seemed under control.

“The fire is significantly reduced,” he said when providing an update on the Centennial Lake fire. “The MNRF bombers are dropping water on it to saturate the area. You can never say a fire is totally out until it has been out for a few days.”

Township fire crews, who were on site since the beginning, took a well-deserved break on Monday night to get some sleep as other fire crews remained on scene, but were back on site on Tuesday morning. They had been joined in the fire effort not only by the MNRF but by numerous firefighters from neighbouring municipalities outside the county where the areas are not in as extreme a fire danger situation.

“We had fire crews coming from all over,” he said. “They volunteered to help which was great.”

The mayor said to his knowledge there has been no loss of homes or property in the fire. Residents and cottagers were still asked to evacuate until Wednesday night at midnight to be sure the fire was totally out before they could return home, he added. Since there are many seasonal properties in this area, many cottagers were not present when the fire broke out on Sunday afternoon, he added.

The fire department has worked extremely hard during the fire and Mayor Weir expressed his thanks to them.

“Our firefighters put in very long hours,” he said. “They are doing an excellent job.”

 He also noted the whole community stretching across Greater Madawaska and not just the immediate area has responded.

“It is the entire community coming together,” he said. “The Lions Club, restaurants, businesses, groups, everyone was volunteering to assist all over Greater Madawaska.”

He also expressed thanks to Renfrew County paramedics and Chief Mike Nolan who were on scene. The smoke conditions are dangerous and hazardous, and paramedics were there to help.

“It was really a full community engagement,” he said.

The township had put in a full fire ban on May 31. The province followed on June 1 with a full ban, Mayor Weir noted.

“I want to remind people there is still a fire ban on,” he stressed.