CANADA

Experience'79: death by fire

Warren Gerard September 3 1979
CANADA

Experience'79: death by fire

Warren Gerard September 3 1979

Experience'79: death by fire

CANADA

Ontario

The North is an elusive part of the Canadian psyche: it beckons. There’s romance about it, a mystique, and the great solitude has always had a special appeal for Canadian youngsters. In Ontario, for example, the provincial government has provided summer-job programs for youths in the North for the past 35 years. About 2,000 high-schoolers were chosen this year on a first-come basis to work for $10 a day, room and board included, on conservation projects and forest clearing.

It was just such another summer this year, and almost over. Another week and a half and school would start again. Then it happened. Five crews, comprising 47 people, had set a “prescribed burn” in a 250-acre section of Crown

land to clear bush at the west end Lake Esnagami, about 175 miles northeast of Thunder Bay. It was a routine procedure designed to prepare the area for timber replanting as part of a ministry of natural resources land improvement program. But suddenly the wind shifted and minutes later seven young people were dead.

The seven dead last week, including two provincial junior rangers and three women, were: Gordon Reid, 17, and Danny Fitzgerald, 17, both of Metro Toronto; Jane Spurgeon, 25, Oshawa; Wanda Parise, 16, Jellicoe; and Colleen Campbell, 16, Kenneth Harkes, 18, and Anthony Glen Thompson, 17, all of Geraldton. Gaius Wesley, 52, of Longlac, fire-control technician for the ministry and supervisor of the crew, survived the fire, but he suffered burns to 25 per cent of his body.

Wesley escaped death by walking into a swamp near the fire site but although he shouted at them, he said, the others failed to follow. James Auld, Ontario’s minister of natural resources, ordered the province’s no-nonsense chief coroner, H. Beatty Cotnam, to hold an immediate inquest into the deaths. Cotnam flew to the site carrying dental records to help identify the dead.

The two Toronto youths were from the Springwater Junior Ranger Camp in the Geraldton-Nakina area Northern Ontario, where they were being taught fire fighting. The four Northern Ontario high-school students were part of the summer-job program

called Experience '79. All the youngsters in the ranger program—1,180 male and 760 female—receive eight weeks of manual work such as seeding, pruning, cutting trees, improving campsites and cutting portages and nature trails. They are lodged in 72 camps around Ontario—45 for males and 27 for females. The Experience ’79 program is a $19.5-million youth employment project established to provide experience that is similar to an individual’s own school and career interests. This involves any of 23 ministries.

One of the dead, Jane Spurgeon, was on contract for a summer job and because of her past forestry experience

she had been hired by Kimberly-Clark of Canada Ltd. as a forestry technician, to start next month. Her father, Frank, could only comment: “What a waste of a young life. It hasn’t really hit me yet.” In Toronto the Reid family had received a letter from Gordon only a day before he died. His brother Dave, 20, said Gordon wrote that he was having a great summer and he really liked the job. “He had worked at a camp last year and he wanted to be a junior forest ranger this year. You only get one chance—that’s when you’re 17. I guess you could say he was lucky to get in. It was an unfortunate accident, but there’s a lot of things that puzzle me about it. The questions and answers will come later, when people have time to think.” Warren Gerard