Ministry of Natural Resources needs to up its game

Thanks to the determination and perseverance of a trio of dedicated citizens, a disaster was averted in McGregor Bay as a fire on a private Island threatened to spread to the mainland, with the potential to reach Killarney Provincial Park—but the folks who are nominally responsible for protecting our forests and its flora and fauna were apparently MIA.

This is a disturbing revelation.

Not only were ministry staff unable to respond to an after-hours fire, their eventual response would have been delayed by having to assemble a crew in the morning. This highlights a significant gap in the protection of our Island communities—particularly the Northeast Town whose boundaries encompass many hundreds of small islands in McGregor Bay and Bay of Islands.

The MNR, in something of a defence, only responds to forest fires, not structure fires, but an uncontained structure fire in the middle of the forest would almost inevitably ignite the surrounding woods. Perhaps there was miscommunication between the initial call and the MNR staff on duty, but it is hard to fathom how that could be so badly misunderstood.

Perhaps even more unsettling is the report that the civilians battling the out-of-control blaze were allegedly not offered anything in the way safety advice or direction.

The most likely advice that a police officer would have provided to the civilians would be that they should remove themselves from danger as soon as possible. But the advice the civilians received in response to their 911 call was to “do the best you can.”

Untrained ad hoc volunteers could easily have put themselves in grave danger, as anyone with experience in fighting forest fires would quickly attest. Fighting forest fires is an occupation that regularly leads to fatalities even among the most highly trained personnel.

Luckily, those civilians responding to the fire in McGregor Bay were competent professionals in their own fields and quite used to thinking on their feet and so were able to avert a potential disaster, even though doing so left them on the brink of physical collapse.

With the challenges coming our way through climate change, forest fires are likely to become far more common that they have been in the past. We can afford few gaps in our response to threats to life, property and our natural resources. The apparently lackadaisical response by a government ministry in the McGregor Bay fire through this incident has revealed a glaring gap in fire protection in Northeastern Ontario and quite clearly reveals a deficit in policy, rather than of personnel. This needs to be addressed and addressed swiftly by those responsible for ministry policy.