When you’re backcountry camping on one of the hardest-to-book and most beautiful lakes in one of the hardest-to-book and most beautiful provincial parks in Ontario, you hardly expect to stumble upon a forest fire on Canada Day weekend.
We spent two nights on Lake Killarney, including a hike up to The Crack, before making the short portage up into the beautiful blue OSA Lake, named for the Ontario Society of Artists that saved it from logging.
Not far from the portage was an island, which on the map was marked as having trapper cabin remains on it. We agreed that we’d probably paddle back for a day trip to explore whatever remained the next day. At that point, the island was definitely not on fire. It had, however, been an incredibly hot, dry couple of weeks.
The campsite we settled on was in the very back corner of the lake and the island was hidden behind a point from our perspective. It wasn’t until the next day when we started paddling toward the island again for our day trip that we realized something wasn’t right.
It was hard to tell at first, but very quickly we realized that the island was, in fact, on fire.
Huge clouds of smoke were billowing out from the other side of the island, blowing into the shore. Luckily, the wind was in our favour and blowing the smoke away from us. We were able to land on the back side of the island and get out of our canoes to take a closer look.
The one side of the island looked completely normal and we could see the trapper cabin remains were still in tact.
However, as we reached the center of the island, it was clear that it was on fire. At first, it just looked like the pine needles on the forest floor were burning up. Our friends dumped what water they had in their Nalgene bottles and tried to sweep some of the needles away with their feet. But the more we looked around, the more we realized that it was going to be impossible for us to stop the fire.
Trees and bushes were starting to burn. Fallen trees, dried by the sun and the heat radiating off the rocks, were fully engulfed in flames on the shoreline. A few campers were not going to extinguish this with our water bottles, unfortunately.
We didn’t have any large containers to fill with water and we decided it would be too risky to try to fight the fire ourselves. It was contained on the island and, while it would be incredibly sad for the trapper cabin to be burned up, we decided it was safer to head back to our campsite. We had seen a few small planes flying overhead and hoped they would be able to report the fire to the proper authorities. Plus, we suddenly wanted to double check that we had fully extinguished our fire from that morning. (We had, phew!)
When we got back to our campsite, we had been in the hot sun for a couple of hours and we decided it was time for a swim to cool down. We paddled to a small, rocky islet not too far from our campsite to access deeper, cooler water and keep our eye on the island. It was still burning.
While we were swimming, however, we noticed a small plane flying low, back and forth across the lake.
Then, suddenly, the plane flew very low right above us and sounded an alarm. We had never heard anything like it and we weren’t sure what was about to happen, but we took it to mean, “Get out of the water!” So we did.
Within moments, three small water bombers appeared above the lake and started dropping water on the island. We could only see the edge of the island in the distance around the point, but we often caught the tail end of the water falling from the plane into the trees.
All three bombers swirled around and around the lake, taking turns dousing the island and possibly disappearing over the hills into neighbouring lakes to refill their tanks. We were treated to quite the Canada Day air show, with the pilots making sharp turns to avoid hitting the rock walls of the LaCloche mountains.
All of the pilots were obviously incredibly skilled and experienced to navigate flying around the mountain peaks while also hitting their target every time they made a pass through the lake.
Shortly after the water bombers finished, a helicopter appeared on the lake and started circling the island. We couldn’t see it well enough to see what was happening, and our friends had just made lunch, so we decided to head back into our campsite.
The next day, we packed up our campsite and started paddling back toward the portage and the island. There was no more smoke billowing off the island, but we could see something red on the rocky shoreline as we approached, along with a bunch of processed logs that had been built into a platform of some kind.
As we landed back on the island, we were greeted by two men and a woman in orange jumpsuits. They were MNR Fire Rangers who had been dropped off by the helicopter the day before. They told us they had spent the night on the island, pumping water up from the lake to fight the fire. The ground was still smoking in the morning when they woke up.
They had drilled holes in some of the hemlock trees to get water down to the burning roots, which they said didn’t damage the trees in the long run. The pine needles were no longer burning, but about a third of the island appeared blackened by the charred needles.
The Fire Rangers had used chainsaws to cut up some trees to build a platform for the helicopter to pick them up from. They said the helicopter can hover while they’re getting out of it, but it has to land in order for them to load up all their gear, to keep it balanced.
These Rangers were from North Bay, about 200km away, because the Sudbury crews were busy fighting other fires in the area. They told us they could be sent anywhere in North America for shifts lasting up to 20 days.
Clearly they had some extra wood because they built a very sturdy picnic table, which you may be able to enjoy for years to come on the trapper cabin island. Many thanks to the Fire Rangers for all their hard work fighting this and all other forest fires.
We hope this video and blog post serve as an important reminder:
- Only camp on designated campsites. It sucks to find out that your favourite lake is booked up on a holiday long weekend, but reservations are required for a reason: to reduce human impact on these fragile ecosystems.
- Have fires in official firepits on designated campsites. If there’s no firepit, the best place to have a fire is on bare rock far from dry pine needles and tree roots. Do not start fires right on the forest floor where embers and coals might catch debris on fire.
- Douse your fire with more water than you think it needs. Don’t leave logs and coals burning in the firepit. The fire should be fully extinguished before you go to bed or leave your campsite.