‘The year the island burned’

·5 min read

On June 12, 1961, Gary Collins was in Grade 8 taking a test when he and his classmates noticed their teacher acting strangely.

“The teacher was looking out the window. She was anxious,” said Collins.

“She used to go to the window and wring her hands. And the principal would come in and look out. All of a sudden, around 2 o’clock in the afternoon, they said, 'We want you to leave school.' We had no idea what it was. And we came out on the steps and looked up to the west, the smoke was billowing up over our ridge.”

Chris Collins (no direct relation) actually saw where the fire started.

He was 25 at the time, and had gone around the shore with a friend to feed the horse and start at some logs they had cut over the winter for the sawmill.

“Me and a buddy of mine was just across the bay and we seen this smoke come up,” said the Hare Bay native.

The smoke was coming from the mouth of Traverse Brook to the southwest, between Hare Bay and Gambo. As the two watched, the fire jumped the river, so they decided to head home. That evening, the fire spread to the woods just behind the town.

Within days, the fire was a major conflagration, the worst of several fires across the province that summer.

Gary Collins — author of several books, including “The Last Beothuk” and "Redjack” — is 73 now, but he vividly remembers the days that followed.

“For a boy of 13, it wasn’t terrifying. It was amazing,” he said from his home in Hare Bay, where he has lived all his life. “It was like something out of Dante’s book. It was an inferno. For miles and miles around, all around for as far as the eye could see, was smoke.”

A Bowater barge and a vessel called the Ocean Ranger remained moored at Hare Bay and occasionally took residents offshore when the smoke got intense.

Collins says his wife, Rose, and her family took haven on Silver Fox Island, where they were originally from. It was one of several island communities that were in the process of being resettled.

There is a famous series of photographs taken that summer showing a house being towed from the island to nearby Dover.

Bud Davidge of the group Simini wrote a song, “Black and White,” about one of those photos, in which he describes the fog that can be seen in the background.

It wasn’t fog, it was smoke from the fire, says Collins.

The Bonavista North fire raged for three months, burned about of three million cords of wood and destroyed dozens of homes, sheds and businesses before finally being put out at Carmanville — 127 kilometres away on the north shore. Hare Bay and Carmanville lost about a dozen structures each.

“They say 1961 was the year the island burned,” said Collins.

Unlike today’s wildfires, which are concentrated in one central area of the island, the summer of 1961 saw several fires in other parts of the province as well, including the Gander area, Fortune Bay and St. John’s. The one near the capital burned over a 10-kilometre band from Mount Scio Road to Portugal Cove Road in June, and for a while posed a major threat to the city.

According to the Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador, as other fires were being brought under control, a new blaze broke out in August at Dunn's River, threatening the Fortune Bay towns of Terrenceville and Grand le Pierre.

“On Aug. 23 the provincial government declared a state of emergency and Ottawa sent 1,000 troops to fight the Dunn's River fire,” the encyclopedia states.

It took until the end of September before everything was extinguished. Overall, the fires of 1961 burned 431,500 hectares across the island.

“The fires resulted in the provincial government expanding its forest service, particularly by the purchase of Canso water bombers, which had proved relatively effective after being loaned by the government of Quebec.”

But for communities like Hare Bay and others in the Bonavista North region, the blaze took away the livelihood of thousands of residents, both those who worked in the logging industry and those employed in the spinoff industry.

As well as writing books, Collins and his son still run a sawmill in the area that was started by his father in the wake of Bowater shutting down its operations in the area. All of the company’s work camps had been destroyed in the fire.

His father also owned an Esso gas station, which became the only source of fuel when the blaze put the only other gas station out of commission.

There were two pumps at the gas station that were operated manually — electricity had not yet arrived in the area. The one with regular gas had a handle that was pumped vertically, and the extra gas came from a pump with a circular crank. The prices were 28 cents a gallon and 42 cents a gallon ((about 7 and 11 cents per litre) respectively.

Collins says he and his mother looked after the pumps while his father volunteered to fight the blaze.

Collins recalls a frightened older woman running up to them at the pumps.

“She was very upset, and she wanted Mom to pump the gas we had out of the ground,” he said. “She was afraid the tanks would explode. But she didn’t say explode, she said, ‘Them tanks could explore, my dear. Better pump it away.’”

Collins said the Bonavista North fire was so intense, it overwintered in the ground and reignited the following spring, singeing some of the same area it had struck the year before.

But there was one silver lining.

Within about three years, the burned-over area was covered in blueberries.

Ever the entrepreneur, Collins’ father jumped at that opportunity as well.

“We used to ship as many as four tractor-trailer loads of blueberries a week.”

Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram