COVER

‘You can’t fight that’

CHRIS WOOD May 26 1986
COVER

‘You can’t fight that’

CHRIS WOOD May 26 1986

‘You can’t fight that’

COVER

Their faces etched with anxiety, groups of people stood outside houses along Highway 102 southeast of Fredericton last Friday, nervously watching a billowing pall of smoke drift overhead. The cloud cast a 40-km-long shadow over New Brunswick’s picturesque St. John River Valley. Dozens of volunteer firemen, police and 500 soldiers from nearby Canadian Forces Base Gagetown watched helplessly as a wall of flame five storeys high swept menacingly through the bush toward them. Said one fireman from nearby Oromocto: “We’re just watching. You can’t fight that.” Shortly after, the fire swept across the highway and rushed toward a half-dozen summer cottages clustered near the river’s edge. And the situation was much the same in parts of the other rain-parched Atlantic provinces where, at week’s end, vast tracts of forest were threatened by raging fires.

Near Gagetown, 40 km southeast of Fredericton, the inferno destroyed homes, cottages and more than 15,000 acres of forest, as hundreds of area residents were evacuated. Three heavy CL-215 water bombers, lent by Ontario and Quebec, circled overhead, dropping to less than 200 feet to release their loads. But for a time the fire seemed impossible to control. Said firefighter John Trebble: “I really don’t know if we’re gaining on this fire or not. It keeps jumping all over the place.”

The New Brunswick fires were apparently initially ignited by a stray round of live artillery fired into the bush near Gagetown during an army gunnery practice early in the week. Said Andrew Beck, whose rural Upper Gagetown home was threatened by the blaze: “I’ve heard different stories. All I know is I want a God-damned good explanation for it.” In Ottawa, Defence Minister Erik Nielsen said that the military’s activity will be “the subject of close inquiry.”

But the Gagetown fire was only one of nearly 50—many of them out of control—that blazed across the province. While firefighters struggled to bring the Gagetown fire under control, an even larger blaze, covering 50,000 acres, raged within three kilometres of the Acadian fishing port of Tracadie. By the end of the week 70,000 acres— close to 50 per cent of the trees annually harvested for forestry operations—had been destroyed.

Meanwhile, in northern Newfoundland, about 40 ground crews struggled with more than a dozen fires, including a wind-fed blaze that burned only

three kilometres from Grand Falls (population 8,000). Residents used garden hoses to water down rooftops in an effort to prevent hot ashes from igniting their homes. Across the province, police in St. John’s were investigating what appeared to be the only fire-related death—after firefighters battling a city brush fire dis-

covered the body of a 17-year-old girl.

Roughly 36 fires were also recorded late last week in Nova Scotia; the province temporarily banned open blazes. And in Prince Edward Island, while four major fires were under control, three new ones erupted. By week’s end, with daytime temperatures in the mid20s, there was no rain in sight to provide relief.

—CHRIS WOOD in Gagetown with correspondents’ reports