Surviving the Fires of 61

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The first time I almost died, I was just four years old.

In fact, my entire family was almost wiped out, trapped in a car in the central Newfoundland wilderness, surrounded by a forest fire.

The year was 1961, one of the worst in living memory for forest fires in Newfoundland, with more than 265,000 hectares of forest land consumed across the eastern and central regions.

The five of us siblings Steve and Sue (youngest brother Tom wasn't born yet) and my mom and dad, Ken and Jean were making the big move, from Ontario to Newfoundland. My dad, Ken Meeker, fresh out of the Royal Canadian Dragoons and looking for a place to put down stakes, was following the lead of big brother Howie. The former playing coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs had relocated with his young family to Newfoundland two years prior, and was already working at CJON. (That's Howie and Ken in the photo, with the late, great Ben the Dog, taken several years ago.)

We were towing a small trailer, stopping to sleep at various parks and rest stops along the way. We were the first campers to use Jack's Pond Provincial Park, my dad talking the staff into letting us overnight in the unfinished sites.

Whilst driving through CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick, my father reconnected with some of his army buddies from the Royal Canadian Dragoons. At the time, they had their bags packed and were on standby to fly to Newfoundland, to assist fighting fires already raging there.

Several days later, we were in central Newfoundland, between Corner Brook and Grand Falls. Back then, there was no highway just a glorified cowpath through the woods.

"It was a gravel road so narrow that, if someone else came along, you had to pull over to let them by," Ken said. "The branches were actually hanging out on the road, touching the trailer."

We first encountered the fire outside of Badger.

"When we got to Badger, we could see the smoke ahead of us, and pockets of fire," Ken said. "We crossed the bridge and went up the hill, and there was this soldier standing in the middle of the road. He waved us down. Then I noticed he was wearing a Dragoon uniform and he said Meeker? Is that you?'"

He was one of the army buddies my father had met in Gagetown. They had arrived four days ahead of our entourage, and were camped in tents, pitched near the side of the highway.

"The soldier said the fire was pretty bad up ahead, the road was closed and he wasn't allowed to let anyone through," Ken said. "I said, Oh come on, let us by! We've got the kids here and a baby in the back who's not well. We need to get to Gander, at least.' He said, Okay, go on,' and let us through."

The soldier shouldn't have done that, of course, and my dad shouldn't have attempted the journey. He realized this quickly enough, once we entered the fire zone.

"My god, the sparks were flying around us. The smoke was coming through (the air vents). We drove right through the middle of the fire!"

The smoke closed in around the car on at least two occasions, forcing us to come to a complete stop, in the midst of the flames.

"I was worried about the paint job on the Mercedes," Ken said, adding that the concern was not cosmetic.

"There were about 18 layers of lacquer on the car a nice, thick, glossy black and if that had caught fire," he said, voice trailing off.

My dad choked up while talking about it, communicating better than words could the stress they endured that day.

For my part, I do have some recall of the experience fleeting images and impressions, frozen in memory like snapshots in an album.

I remember the narrow gravel road, level with the forest floor. Flecks of orange dancing in the thick, gray smoke. The acrid smell, and the heat.

I also remember the tension in the car. My parents did their best to stay calm, but I detected the fear and concern in their voices. They were powerless to do anything about the situation. We couldn't drive forward or back, because of zero visibility, and it was not safe to get out and walk. We were at the mercy of the fire, and completely alone all other traffic had been turned back.

In a remarkable coincidence, my Uncle Howie also had a harrowing encounter with the same fire, at Swift Current on the Burin Peninsula. In addition to fighting the blaze, Howie used catgut to stitch shut the slashed-open bellies of Don Jamieson's horses.

I suspect it was several days before our encounter, as the fire started on the Burin Peninsula before raging north, stopping just short of Clarenville before following the wind westward, to greet us.

At the time, Howie was best known as a sports announcer with CJON (now NTV), but he was a man with a thumb in many pies. He worked in the agency business, representing Mattel Toys, Tonka Toys, Lego, Brunswick Bowling, Winchester Guns and Ammunition, and Samsonite Luggage. On top of that, he was coach of the Guards junior and senior hockey teams in the St. John's League.

"I had a mortgage, a wife, six kids, and a barn full of horses, so I had to feed them all!" Howie said, in a phone interview from his home in Parksville, B.C.

Howie's boss at CJON was Don Jamieson, who would later rise to national prominence in the cabinet of Pierre Trudeau. One day, he approached Howie to ask if he wanted to do some salmon fishing. Howie was interested, but there was a catch: he had to come to Swift Current to fish, while volunteering as a fire fighter. They'd be working to save Don Jamieson's cabin, located on the lovely promontory of land that is now Kilmory Resort, from the flames that were roaring up the peninsula.

"For three or four days we were out in the woods, with hoses, backpacks full of water, and shovels and picks, and we fought that fire," Howie said.

Their efforts were in vain. The flames continued to advance, right to the outer edge of Jamieson's land. At that point, Howie said, attention turned to the four or five horses in the barn.

"We wanted to get them out of the barn, because the flames were around the edge of his property and we didn't know which way the wind was going. We didn't know whether he was going to lose the barn, or not."

Inside the barn, the horses were keenly aware of the impending danger, and had broken into a wild panic, leaping about and striking each other with their shod hooves.

"There were three of them that had huge cuts," Howie said. "One in the stomach, one in the shoulder and one in the back legs there was open flesh. The lining of the hip and stomach the guts that was all there. There was no external bleeding at all. But the shoes had ripped them about a foot to 18 inches long, at least. They were cut all to rat poop! I remember there was one cut high in the back flank of the horse, (and) the torn skin just hung there like a piece of wallpaper falling off the wall."

There were several other CJON staffers on hand, but "they were scared to hell of the horses," Howie said.

"So I got the guys we corralled the horses and put a rope around the nose about four or five times and finally picked up one leg and got them down on the ground."

They found a screwdriver and quickly sharpened it to a point, then drilled a hole in the handle, through which they threaded some of Jamieson's fishing line, or "catgut."

"Then the fellas held the horses down. One guy got the extra skin and we pulled it together, I took the screwdriver and punched a hole in the hide on both sides, and strung the catgut across and pulled it tight. It was 12-pound test (line), I remember that. It took a while but we (sewed up) all the horses. We just tied it in knots. It was amazing."

At first, the horses were not impressed with the team's surgical skills.

"For the first two or three punctures that we put in either side of their hides, because the needle wasn't that sharp, when we made the hole they kicked and did everything but the rest of the time they just lay there and let you do it. They all must have realized, Oh just a minute, this might hurt but it's for a good reason.'

"The guys said, Howie, Jeez, I never would have done that.' I said Well, it had to be done. Somebody had to do it.' There wasn't anybody else around at that time. Everybody else was busy protecting their houses."

Fortunately, the wind shifted, the fire changed course, and Jamieson's property was spared. Howie returned a few weeks later to do the salmon fishing he had been promised. While there, he helped remove the makeshift stitches.

"You wouldn't believe it. I took the nylon backing out of the horses It healed great, it really healed great. You couldn't see the scar.

"I tell you what then we got into the dark rum!"

As you may have guessed, my family managed to survive the fire in central.

We must have passed through areas that had just been burnt over. There was dense smoke, sporadic flame, and intense heat, but most of the tinder-dry forest had already been consumed otherwise, we would certainly have perished.

But we did get through it, the only car on the road, driving through mile after mile of blackened landscape; a wilderness graveyard with scorched tree trunks for headstones. When we emerged safely from the fire zone, there was some damage to the siding of the trailer, and, inside, the butter had melted to a liquid.

It was a warm welcome to Newfoundland.

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  • Jeff
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    Interesting story.