Fisheries and Land Resources

Forestry and Agrifoods

History of Fire Patrol

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by Stephanie Paul

(with excerpts from "A History of the Newfoundland Forest Protection Association" by W.J. Carroll)

2005 marks the 100th Anniversary of dedicated Forest Fire Fighters in Newfoundland and Labrador. Legislation was first enacted by the Newfoundland Government on June 15, 1905 to protect the forest resources from the ravages of wildfire. This was the Forest Fire Act and was passed on the same day as the Pulp and Paper Act which established the AND Company.

The occurrence of these two events on the same day was obviously more than just a coincidence. There was now a major commercial demand for the forest resource; it had acquired a recognized economic value. Also of significance was the fact that in the previous year forest fires started by trains had been exceptionally destructive, burning an area of forest land in excess of 80,900 hectares (ha). The railway had created a major problem and caused hundreds of fires annually, eventually resulting in burning almost all timberlands adjacent to its right-of-way. For example, in one instance a train engine started seven fires over a distance of 9.6 km.

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The Act identified the responsibilities of the railway company and its employees, stipulated the need for and defined the fire prevention measures to be taken. The fighting of forest fires was mandatory for anyone called to do so. The Act also made provision for the appointment of a Chief Woods Ranger and assistant rangers and defined their duties. The Chief Woods Ranger was the fire control officer for all forest land on the island including Crown lands and those privately held. He was required to investigate the origin of fires and hold inquiries. Very shortly after passage of the Forest Fire Act, a forest fire patrol was established by the government. In its initial years this agency had responsibility for the protection on all forest lands of the island. Its staff consisted of four people; Thomas Howe, the Chief Ranger who was stationed at Port Blandford, and three assistants, who were located at Whitbourne, Robinson's Station in the Codroy Valley, and at Deer Lake. By 1909 the number of assistants was increased to five and the new men were stationed at Grand Falls and Bishop's Falls. This government fire patrol was the first formally organized forest fire agency in Newfoundland. It was from this early fire patrol beginning that a Forest Service would develop and become responsible for all forest management and protection activities in Newfoundland and Labrador. Patrolling during these early days was done on foot and equipment was limited to water pails, axes, and shovels.

In 1920 the first hand pumps and velocipedes (a three-wheeled hand propelled track vehicle) were introduced. This continued as standard equipment until the early 1930s when the first powered pumps and powered rail cars (speeders) became part of the arsenal of equipment. The Government Fire Patrol was not an isolated entity; it was one of three agencies in Newfoundland charged with responsibility for the detection and suppression of forest fires. The other agencies were the Newfoundland Fire Patrol, which operated solely on the railways, and the fire patrols of the paper companies, which operated on company lands. These were separate units, each with its own identity and each with differing responsibilities and there was no central authority to coordinate their activities.

By the early 1920s the industrial timber limits and logging operations of the mills at Grand Falls and Corner Brook had been consolidated and these companies controlled nearly one-half of the total area of the island. This placed them in a position to exert a significant influence on future developments and policies in forestry in Newfoundland, and to develop their own company fire patrol agencies. Experienced woodsmen manned fire towers and conducted fire prevention patrols of forest areas and logging operations to ensure that fire prevention equipment was strategically located in each logging district and that fire prevention regulations were being observed.

The function of the company fire patrol and of company fire fighting crews was the protection of company timberlands and unless they were threatened the patrol was unavailable for the protection of other timber stands. In March 1911 there was new legislation enacted authorizing the establishment of a new fire control agency, The Fire Patrol of Newfoundland. It was organized in an attempt to control the numerous fires being started along the railway by trains, thus protecting the right-of-way along the railway, from St. John's to Port aux Basques. The new fire patrol had been established as a legal entity to be cooperatively administered and jointly financed by the Newfoundland forest industry and the government.

The principal function of the new fire patrol was to operate as an initial attack force for fires along the railway track, and later expanded to include the highway. The first highway patrol by a fire truck was started in 1938 from Grand Falls to Badger and from Deer Lake to Corner Brook. The sections of highway were patrolled by men on motorcycles with side cars to carry fire fighting equipment. In December 1944, The Newfoundland Fire Patrol was changed to Newfoundland Forest Protection Association (NFPA), to better reflect the broader forest protection interests of the agency. The role of the agency had by now changed to include fire control and suppression, forest insect surveys, silvicultural research and a major program of public education in forest conservation.

The NFPA fire control depots served as field headquarters for patrolmen and were strategically located in each division. The depots were equipped with firefighting equipment including velocipedes, railway speeders, trucks, motor pumps, fire hoses, etc. Communication between NFPA Headquarters, the depots, lookout towers and various railway and highway patrol stations was maintained by telephone. In later years sophisticated radio communication systems became available similar to the system being utilized today. Fire hazard forecasting was first introduced to Newfoundland in 1928 by the NFPA and was used in subsequent years to predict daily fire hazard conditions. The technique used measurements of principal weather components such as rainfall, temperature, relative humidity, and wind velocity in conjunction with fire danger tables to develop the hazard rating. Analysis of fire hazard data produced information which was used to maintain a level of readiness of firefighting forces; the information was also posted on road signboards as a reminder to the public to be careful.

Captain Jack Turner, the Chief Forest Officer for the government, authorized the establishment of the first fire lookout towers. Construction was started in 1935. The first towers were located at Mount Peyton in central Newfoundland, the Lowell Hills near Traytown, Mount Blandford near Thorburn Lake, and Powderhorn Hill near Princeton. These were operated by the Government Fire Patrol. Tower men were each equipped with binoculars, a telephone and an instrument called an Alidade by means of which direction readings of a fire could be taken. All the information obtained was telephoned to a central office where the locations of the fire was plotted and from where fire fighting crews were dispatched.

The use of aircraft for fire detection was introduced in 1948. The NFPA chartered aircraft for fire patrol duties until 1954, after which it relied on planes chartered by the forest industry and the government. At the present time, forest fire control activities in Newfoundland and Labrador make use of several large water bombers, helicopters and smaller reconnaissance aircraft in fire control operated by the provincial government. An annual inspection trip was introduced by the NFPA in 1942 and continued until 1962. It was normally made early in June to inspect fire patrol depots and equipment and to ensure they were in a state of readiness for the coming season's work.

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The tour group consisted of senior officials of the controlling committee, government, the forest industry and the Railway. The trip started in western Newfoundland and after about four days of travel terminated in St. John's. At St. John's the tour group met with the Minister responsible for forestry for a discussion of observations made during the trip.

Uncontrolled forest fires erupted again in 1961 and over 265,000 ha of forest land were burned. The experience showed how poorly equipped Newfoundland forestry services were to deal with such large fires. Under such conditions of severe stress the weakness resulting from the lack of coordination among the various fire control agencies was evident and it became necessary for government to provide leadership by organizing a special fire control authority at Gander to direct the fire fighting efforts. It had taken virtually a near disaster to demonstrate the necessity of a unified and well-coordinated fire fighting force. Government responded very quickly in attempting to improve its fire control capabilities. Six aircraft - two Canso water bombers, one large helicopter for transportation of men and equipment, and three small fixed-wing aircraft - were purchased. Improvements continued over the next few years: a network of twelve weather stations for determining fire hazard ratings were established and a radio communications system was installed.

In 1966, the Controlling Committee of the NFPA decided to terminate all forest fire patrol activities and by early 1967 an agreement was reached for the disposal of the association's fire fighting equipment. The NFPA (now known as the NLFPA) primarily looks after public relations and still has an annual forestry supplement in the provincial weekly newspapers as well as advertisements on radio and television. The Government Fire Patrol now looks after all forest land in the Province, except for federal property and comes under the direction of the Forestry and Agrifoods Agency. There are 106 seasonal staff along with 8 permanent staff positions employed in the forest fire program. They operate out of 24 forest fire depots strategically located throughout Newfoundland and Labrador. In addition to these staff positions the Province operates six CL-215 water bombers, a Cessna spotter aircraft and have 4 Bell 206L helicopters at their disposal. In 2002, the seasonal fire staff formed and incorporated the Newfoundland and Labrador Wildfire Fighters Association. This organization was set up to promote the role of the forest fire fighter, to provide input into improving the fire suppression program and to represent the needs of its membership. With the establishment of the Forest Fire Act in 1905 came a long term commitment to protect the forest resources. This commitment has not wavered since that time and has grown stronger as demands on the resource, from a wide variety of users, continues to increase.

 

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