Fire Refugees Tell Stark Stories of Sorry Plight

Fort Frances Times and Rainy Lake Herald

“Thank God, most of us who are reading this issue of the Time have not experienced the stark terror of a forest fire as did our neighbouring residents of Dance Township.

Although we sympathize with these anguished settlers, from the bottom of our hearts, many of us just cannot realize the stark tragedy that faced this brave group of settlers.”

In an effort to picture for our readers some of the experiences and happenings on that fateful day, ironically the Thanksgiving Festival, we present quotations gained in interviews with several members of the stricken families.
Little Arlene Gunderson, age 5, of Dance, a bright, blue-eyed tot, in her version of the fire story was more concerned about “Tiny,” a little fox terrier which she clutched for hours as she lay face down in a field awaiting rescue. “I wasn’t going to let my dog get burned. I just hung right tight to her,” she told a Times reporter. Meanwhile the puppy was frolicking around the hotel room, seemingly aware of the protection in received from it’s youthful mistress.

Gayle, 11 year old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Elmer Gunderson of Dance, was just brimful of news. She told how the family of four children had lain in the hay field while fires raged around them. “Were we ever scared,” she exclaimed. “We were the nearest neighbours of Noah LaBelle’s. Everyday we went to school with those kids, and now some of our best chums are gone.”

With eight children, the eldest 17, Mrs. Peter Venn will never forget the terrifying experience. The rangers had been stationed nearby their home. Their provisions were all burned and they came to the Venn home for food. “We shared what we had,” stated Mrs. Venn. “It wasn’t much though during that frightful day. At three a.m., they ordered us out.” With a sick baby in her arms, accompanied by seven young children, Mrs. Venn left her home during the early morning hours for Fort Frances and safety.

“At the back of our house, at midnight, the flames were just sweeping across the sky,” stated Mrs. Fred Barrill. “The sky was like daylight, with flames shooting seemingly miles high.” With the Cogger and Snow families, they sought refuge at the former’s home. From three o’clock in the afternoon until 3 a.m. Tuesday they sat in a tiny clearing, hardly daring to move. Bread and a jar of fruit was the only food for twelve persons.

Mrs. David Cogger, at whose home the Snow and Barrill families gathered while their husbands battled the terrific flames, said she had no idea they would be rescued by the forest rangers. For hours, with the other, she waited, watching the blazing timber fall near their home. “I can not tell you our feeling when the forestry branch trucks arrived for us. We were certain we were all ‘goners’,” she said.

Another settler, Mrs. Joe Cogger, stated “I didn’t want to leave my house. I wanted to stay and help my man and my two boys fight for our home.” She told of how her husband’s and son’s feet were so badly burned and blistered they could hardy walk.

“It was like a hail storm,” quoted Mrs. Clyde Kimbell. “The wind came with a whizzing sound. I shall never forget.”
To Raymond Cogger, 14, an extremely bright boy, the memory of the terrifying experience will likely remain forever imprinted on his mind. Unlike many of the smaller children, he realized the gravity of the situation. Describing the commencement of the blaze, he said, “The wind came up in an instant; trees bent to the ground, and within a few minutes the whole place was burning. That’s how quick it came. In the balsam trees, as fire struck, it sounded like grease in a frying pan.”

Mrs. Isabelle Nesbitt, perhaps suffered more property loss than any other family in the area. With her husband and her family of two girls, she had been saving up to for years to build a new home. Finally the dream was realized a few weeks ago. Up went the fine new logs for their building. Her father, Fred Barrill, was completing the carpentry work. The clearing where the new log home stood Monday is nothing but smoldering ashes today. In the house were all Mr. Barrills carpenter tools. He made an effort to dash through the flaming wood to save what he could, but was forced back by the intense heat. The building and all new contents which the Nesbitt family had been acquiring were lost.

Other words of children of the refugee families were: “Boy, it was hot. Mother made us lie down and cover our heads with wet clothes. We nearly smothered. We were so scared though, we did exactly what they told us.” Mother, Daddy and everyone that could turned in and fought fires. Water seemed to dry before it ever reached the flames. Some of us were so thirsty but we didn’t dare bother asking for a drink.” Fire was so close to some of us, we could feel out legs and arms scorching.”

Many of the women describing their dash to freedom through the stricken area early Tuesday morning stated the flames and smoke practically engulfed them. “Under the wheels of the trucks, the road even seemed to be burning,” they related. “Most of the children were so good, hardly a peep out of them. Of course some were so little they couldn’t what was the trouble.”

“Our poor husbands and boys must be nearly dead. We haven’t seen them since Monday morning, but we hear they are all right. Some of them haven’t had a nights sleep for weeks.”