Com­mon sense best fire­wall

Forests, homes and lives at risk when fires care­lessly or wil­fully set

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Wayne Young Wayne Young is an in­struc­tor in the jour­nal­ism pro­gram at Hol­land Col­lege in Char­lot­te­town.

Po­lice suspect some­one – il­le­gally and il­log­i­cally – set two aban­doned build­ings ablaze in West Prince a few weeks ago.

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 long­time 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 man­made, 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.

GUARDIAN IM­AGE

A Septem­ber 3, 1960 front page of The Guardian de­scribes the for­est fire that threat­ened sev­eral West Prince com­mu­ni­ties at the time.

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