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Real “Fireworks” on July 1st


It was July 1 and a mine holiday. The weather continued hot and dry and was perfect for the annual Dominion Day celebration. That celebration was to consist of morning competitions among mine-organized fire teams to see which could suppress a fire in the shortest time, hand mucking and drilling competitions among individual miners, a baseball game against a team from a rival mine in the afternoon, and the annual July 1st dance in the evening. All in all a busy day was planned.


About 10 am just before the fire team competitions got underway a few of us in our choice seats on the roof of the headframe noted a rather heavy column of black smoke on the horizon to the southwest. It appeared to be a small forest fire that was just starting to wake up to the day as the early morning humidity retreated in front of the hot sun. Now, that summer had been one of the driest summers on record in Northwestern Ontario and adjoining Manitoba , and forest fires of gigantic size had been burning to the east and north of the mine. On the 19th of June at about 7 p.m. in the evening smoke had blown in from a fire in Manitoba and had reduced visibility to less than 100 feet for about an hour. But at 10 am that Dominion Day our fire looked small enough and far enough away that it was on with the competition, and the youthful engineering staff fire team set out to defend their record against all comers.


At 11 am, with the engineers out in front, staff from the Department of Lands and Forests arrived and put us on alert for evacuation. A quick look at the sky to the south west showed why - the fire had rapidly increased in size and was now about four miles away and being pushed by 30 mile an hour winds directly toward the mine site.


Within a half an hour word had gone out across the community for everyone to gather at the mine dry in preparation for evacuation by bus should it be required. No one was to bring anymore than they could comfortably carry, and medicine and baby necessities were to be considered top priority. With the help of the cookery staff a makeshift kitchen was set up in the dry and manned by some of the ladies who rapidly got coffee and soup on and sandwiches made. A number of teenagers organized an activity area for the children. People arrived in various states of excitement and anguish, with pets on leashes and in cages, and with photograph albums and the family’s heirloom candlesticks tucked neatly underneath their arms. At the end of an hour the community was for all intents and purposes vacated with the exception of a few men who were looking after the water supply and a series of fire pumps supplied by Lands and Forests.


A number of us were pressed into service as Extra Fire Fighters and wound up on a fire line on the southwest side of the community. Some had the opportunity to cut fire line, others to man one of the strategically located pumping units with instruction to wet down as large an area as possible. “Not to worry!” they said, “We’ll give you plenty of notice should you have to evacuate your post!” Yeah, sure!


About 1.30 in the afternoon the wind shifted ever so slightly to the west and in mid-afternoon the fire sailed past the mine site about a mile to the south. We turned the pumps off shortly after and spent the rest of the afternoon rolling hose and retrieving equipment. For one reason or other a number of us found ourselves at the Assistant Manager’s house early in the evening where we regaled each other far into the evening with our personal vignettes of the day’s activities. With all the excitement we completely forgot the fact that several of us had appointments with some of the young ladies of the community to attend the dance that evening. Instead, as we spent the evening swapping stories, the ladies spent the evening trying to locate us. Forty years later when one of those young ladies who is now my wife wants to hassle me, she reminds me of the July 1st I stood her up.