“Good God, will this never end!” he cried, as he collapsed in my arms, sobbing like a baby, in the McKenzie hospital, at the foot of Mrs. Frank LaBelle’s bed as her sweet little 11-year-old daughter, Maxine, lying in a bed beside her, was drawing her last breath. Half carrying and half dragging him form the room, sobbing in my arms, I tried to comfort him, but when he said, “Those poor little kids; they’d have done anything for me, and to see them dying off like cats and dogs- man, I can’t stand it,” I must confess that I could find no words of comfort.
He was Dan Patterson, who for two years had been employed by the LaBelle families as a woodcutter. He was like one of the family. When he had sufficiently recovered form the shock, I sat down and talked with him and this is the story of probably the worst , or certainly one of the worst tragedies that ever struck the district of Rainy River:
Fire had been burning back west and north of us for over a month. It was in the quarter section south of Frank’s place. The William and Frank LaBelle families lived just across the road form one another at a point about one mile north of the Dance corner.
We had had our noonday meal and were going out into the woods to resume our work of cutting pulpwood. My partner, Nap LeBrun, said he was going over to file his saw, so I went over to the bunkhouse with him. I was in it for about five or ten minutes when I had a feeling or premonition that something was going to happen. It was such a beautiful afternoon, and sort of oppressive. I went outside and had a look around and then I said to LeBRun, “I think I’ll go out and see what’s going on; I just don’t like the feel of things around here.” He told me to wait a few minutes and he would go with me. On our way out we called to Bob Featherstone, and he came along with us. We took the shortcut through the woods and went down to Jack Munro’s meadow.
When we got there we could hear it coming something desperate, like the roar of a dozen freight trains going over trestles in the distance. “I’m gone!” I yelled to them, and dashed back home where I met Frank LaBelle with Gus Anderson. I told frank that there was no time to waste and we had to get going right away.
Then I ran up to Bill LaBelle’s place and got the team and wagon. While I was hitching them up, Frank had got the women and children rounded up and started down the road, heading south, walking with them. I came along with the team and picked them all up. With the three families, we started down the road. When we got down to Jack Munro’s garage, about a quarter of a mile the flames were across the road in a blanket of fire. It was heavy green timber, and so hot that we dared no tackle it, because we knew we would be roasted alive.
Then we wheeled the team around and headed back to Frank’s house. It had the largest clearing and we thought that, being trapped on all sides, we might be able to fight off the fire and save ourselves in this clearing. It was around 2 or 3 in the afternoon. I don’t know exactly what time because I didn’t have a watch with me. We fought there desperately, pouring water on the buildings, but when the outer buildings started going, it looked hopeless. Then when the house caught fire the disaster struck.
Everyone, women and children, seemed to go temporarily mad, and they scattered in every direction. Man, you’ll never know what a forest fire is unless you’ve been in one. It is so terrifying that that there is no possible way to describe it. I was up on the roof, pouring water helping to try to save the house, when one of those heat waves hit me. It took me right off the roof, into the air like a feather, and when I hit the ground in a heap I figured I was done for. I apparently had enough presence of mind to douse myself with water, and when I came to, I tried to take Mrs. Bill LaBelle and her baby with me. We figured now our only hope was to make a dash for the road through the fire and lie on the gravel. Mrs. LaBelle started to follow me, but when she noticed some of her children were not with her, she turned and went back and wouldn’t follow.
When I went out to look around after dinner Monday, you couldn’t see six feet into the bush in any direction. When we got up off that road after the fire had swept through, you could see a mile in any direction.
While the others were lying on the road endeavouring to shelter themselves from the blast of flames, I made a dash south on the highway to try and get a message through for help. I had only gotten to the Lost Creek bridge when I was overtaken by Mr. Croome who had three of the LaBelle children in his car. When his car stalled coming up on Canyon Hill, I took the three LaBelle children-Maxine and Douglas, Frank’s children and Teddy, Noah’s oldest boy. We laid down on the road covering ourselves with a blanket as best we could and waited until Bill LaBelle arrived with his truck and took us to town.