MCGREGOR BAY—Scott Beaumont and his buddy Brian Armstrong, both from Sault Ste. Marie, were sitting around camp at 11:30 pm following a day working on an island in McGregor Bay when they noticed a glow on the horizon. At first they thought it might be the moon rising, having been bright the night before, but soon skyrocketing flames and billowing smoke gave lie to that hope.
Less than an hour later the pair were engaged in what Mr. Beaumont blithely describes as “quite an experience.”
The duo quickly realized that what they were seeing was a fire, a serious one at that, especially given the dry conditions in the bush. They decided to investigate the situation to decide what they should do.
“We thought we might have to evacuate,” said Mr. Beaumont, who called 911 to report the fire. More on that later.
The pair got in a boat and took on the tricky job of navigating the waterway in the dark, quite the accomplishment in and of itself.
As they got closer to the fire, Mr. Beaumont and his friend soon realized they were looking at a serious structure fire—one that was spreading to the surrounding bush and onto the nearby mainland. The mainland stood barely 200 feet from the fire and embers launched from hollow pines burning like freestanding flamethrowers drifted on strong gusting winds to settle in the dry bush. If the fire took hold on that peninsula, the duo realized, it would quickly spread out across the forest and threaten nearby Killarney Park.
Another neighbour had arrived at the fire scene first and was desperately trying to contain the fire with the water from a fire pump—now there were three civilians working to contain the fire. There were two pumps available at that point and the trio dismantled one of the pumps and took it to the fire on the mainland.
“We made that our first priority,” said Mr. Beaumont, recognizing the serious potential that fire presented. Stumbling ashore in the dark with only flashlights and a headlamp to augment the light from the raging fires on the nearby island.
Mr. Beaumont and his friend soon had the immediate danger on the mainland quenched, but the fire on the island was gaining ground—the one valiant neighbour’s efforts were not winning the battle at that point.
Even the return of the second pump was not proving to be enough. Mr. Beaumont decided to go in search of another pump. Before leaving the island, he investigated a nearby boathouse and discovered a dismantled fire pump in there.
“It was in pieces and some squirrels had obviously decided to store things in it,” said Mr. Beaumont. Even though he had never assembled a fire pump, the engineer figured it out in short order, finding the nozzles and other parts needed to get pump running.
The two fire pumps the trio had are maintained by the cottage association, but the newly discovered pump was a private affair and not as well maintained. Nonetheless the pump fired up right away once assembled and then there were three. With the three pumps going full tilt, they managed to at least contain the fire to the structure and doused the nearby trees.
Back to 911.
“I got a call back about 45 minutes later from someone I assume was with the MNR (Ministry of Natural Resources),” recalled Mr. Beaumont. The news from the other line hit like a hammer. Once the caller discovered the fire was on a private island, the level of urgency on the other end of the line seemed to drop significantly.
“He told me they would not be able to get out to the fire until morning, and even then he would have to assemble a crew,” said Mr. Beaumont. “He sounded really sorry about it but told us to ‘do the best you can’.”
Realizing that they were on their own, and understanding what was at stake, the trio redoubled their efforts.
“It isn’t just the property that was in danger,” said Mr. Beaumont. “This is a beautiful area and we are not very far from Killarney Provincial Park. If the fire was left alone to burn for seven hours, there is no telling what could happen.”
So it was that three private citizens, wielding what was available and at hand, battled through the night to save McGregor Bay from disaster—alone.
“It was really bad timing, and then again it wasn’t,” said Mr. Beaumont. “It was late at night, so most people who were around were already in bed asleep. But then, if we had arrived just a little bit later, we might not have been able to get things under control.”
Northeast Town council learned of the fire and the efforts of, in the words of Councillor Jim Ferguson, “a few good Samaritans.” Mr. Ferguson, a contractor in the McGregor Bay area in his day job, arrived on the scene around 9 am in the morning and put his crew and himself to work dealing with the smoldering remains.
As the sun rose above the horizon, Mr. Beaumont and his friends were beyond exhausted, having battled the blaze for over six hours. “We were so wet, tired and hypothermic from the cold water we couldn’t even stand,” he said. “We put the hoses from the three pumps on the smoldering ruins of the structure and left.”
Mr. Beaumont described the spray of water coming from the hose he was wielding as “like a garden hose spraying right on me with cold lake water.” Small wonder the trio were played out after a long night.
Now that the adrenaline has worn off, Mr. Beaumont has had time to dwell on the response he got after calling 911.
“You would think there would be more of it,” he said. “You would think they would have a crew ready to go. Or at least provide some kind of advice. All we got was ‘do the best you can’.”
Civilians battling a forest fire, on an island or not, is a dangerous proposition, he pointed out. “There was no, ‘don’t pour water on the green box,’ ‘don’t spray the power lines,’ nothing like that,” said Mr. Beaumont. While he stressed that he does not want to single anyone out for criticism, the engineer was nonplussed that there was no protocol in place to deal with a blaze in such a vulnerable location. No offer of advice on safety was offered, he stressed. “It wasn’t until the next morning that anyone official even showed up.”
The Northeast Town fire department does not respond to fires on islands in McGregor Bay, leaving that responsibility to the MNR—with costs transferred to the municipality. The Northeast Town even pays a type of insurance to limit the cost of MNR resources needed to battle the blaze.
Mr. Beaumont said that he intends to contact “government officials” to express his concerns officially.