Putting out fires in Margaree Centre
You follow a narrow thread of road through a canyon of bright green trees, and up above that, an even higher canyon of Cape Breton highlands. It is beautiful, drawn so large it makes you feel small.
I found Margaree Forks first. But I also found North East Margaree, Margaree Valley, the Margaree airstrip, Margaree Harbour, the Margaree fish hatchery and East Margaree.
They all bend around different parts of the Margaree River, a wide course of clear water cutting through drifts of round pink stone and across flat river meadow, low- lying flatlands of grass with occasional peaks of lupin blossoms.
Finally, I found Margaree Centre, the one I needed to find most of all, the site of the North East Margaree Fire Department Fun Days.
Margaree Centre is small: a combination gas station/convenience store/post office (the garage founded in 1951), a community centre, and a two-bay firehall (the department founded in 1954) making up the whole of the core of the town. Houses vary in size, but they’re strung out, rarely on top of one another. Rural Nova Scotia to a tee.
The Fun Days an annual, all-weekend thing. Friday night, it was supposed to be a family dance.
Saturday, it’s an 8: 30 a. m. road race up a nearby mountain, a fire truck parade, kids’ activities at the fire hall, an adult dance in the evening, and then Sunday’s duck race and baseball tournament.
It’s a big commitment for a 20-member fire department — but it’s important, just like fundraisers are to volunteer fire departments across the Atlantic region.
There’s a fire levy on homeowners to raise operating costs, but the chief of the department, Sean Burchell, says that only goes so far: “That’s where we get in a problem, because people don’t realize what it costs. It’s a hard go with volunteer departments, as far as money-wise.”
His department already has geographic challenges: there are two main bridges that connect parts of the fire district: one is closed, being replaced, while the other has a temporary surface the heavy pumpers can’t cross, so it’s an 18-kilometre dogleg on rough roads. Houses are spread out over miles and miles of rural roads, some of them gravel, others paved but roughly patched. And, while the country is beautiful, I can’t help but think what it must be like in winter, the snow coursing down; clearly, these are people who like their space, but the idea of a blizzard here seems particularly isolating.
Like other departments, the Margaree department has the costs of everything from fuel to training to equipment. Burchell’s department is small, but it still has extrication equipment to cut people out of cars, along with a system for refilling breathing air tanks.
And three trucks. One is almost new, a pickup converted with a water tank and portable pumps. The other two, fullsized pumpers, date back to 1977. (They don’t have a ton of mileage on the odometer, but still, it’s like a 55- year- old nursing along the car he had as a teenager.)
The Fun Days are a muchneeded financial lift. Firefighters also staff the bar during community dances, another way to raise much-needed cash. It takes a lot of commitment — and it’s hard to find people to do it.
Today’s volunteer firefighter has first aid and CPR training, as well as basic firefighting training, extrication training, breathing gear training and the list goes on. So do the costs. So, on top of everything else, there’s the time committed for fundraising.
Friday afternoon in Margaree Centre, a man opens a plastic bag and shows me three fine trout he’s caught, cleaned now but still brilliantly coloured. Other people are leisurely cutting grass, gardening. At a firefighter’s house, the ducks were being counted and their numbers checked. The department has been running the duck race for over 20 years.
How many people are going to show up for Fun Days? Burchell’s never counted and won’t hazard a guess. “I know we sell a pile of hotdogs.”
That morning, Burchell and another firefighter had trundled their front-line 1977 GMC pumper to fill a new aboveground pool for a resident. Now, Burchell’s filling coolers with pop for the family dance: “And I have stuff to do at home, too. Maybe next weekend.”