It has been four months since the final embers of this past summer’s Parry Sound 33 fire were extinguished. The fire scorched over 28,000 acres of Ontario’s cottage country—approximately the size of 21,000 football fields—causing cottagers, residents, and business owners to evacuate the surrounding areas. Despite the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) declaring the fire “out” on October 31, 2018, its effects still linger in the district of Parry Sound.
Key Harbour, located along the Key River near the opening to Georgian Bay, was one of the areas hit hardest. “It shut the whole area down. Period,” says Chris Dawson. “Nobody was allowed to do anything. They evacuated the whole area.” Chris and Carol Dawson have owned and operated Key Harbour Lodge for 15 years, a fishing and hunting camp with rental cottages that draws visitors looking to experience the outdoors and enjoy the nearby views of the 30,000 islands of Georgian Bay.
Despite evacuation orders and the fire burning a half mile away from the lodge, an exception was made for the Dawsons, allowing them to stay as they housed some of the firefighters combatting the flames. Thanks to the concerted efforts of multiple organizations including the MNRF and a division of Mexican firefighters sent north to provide assistance, the fire was held at bay and none of the Dawson’s property was damaged. “I was lucky,” Dawson says. “If you go out towards the back bays and stuff, you see a lot that’s burnt.”
Not everyone in the Key Harbour area was as lucky. Dawson estimates that five to six cottages were totally decimated by the fire. “There’s one where literally everything was burnt right up to his cottage door, but we got lucky and managed to save his cottage. But all his trees and everything else have fallen down.”
The Lodge is seasonal, running from May through September, with Dawson spending his winters by Windsor. He hasn’t been back to the area since the end of September, but when he left, Key Harbour was in rough shape. “Everything’s burnt up, like all your undergrowth,” he says. “So, the trees are going to be falling down. There’s nothing for them to regrow in. There’s no soil or anything else and I imagine with the snowfall, most of anything that’s left there will get kind of washed into little puddles.”
Dawson plans to open for business in the spring, but he knows visits will be down this season.“I’ve got my regulars that are going to be coming back,” he says. “I think I will do ok. It’s going to be rough just because a lot of the areas you go to, they are like match sticks standing with nothing else around, so your scenery’s going to be gone.” Dawson describes the surrounding view as being nothing but chard wood and windmills.
But while Dawson will scrounge together a season on the merits of the area’s fishing, it’s the cottagers who will really suffer. “I feel bad for them,” he says. “I feel real bad for them.” Once beautiful properties have been reduced to blackened earth and bald rock. Trees that stood for over a century have been toppled and incinerated, leaving properties exposed to the elements. The task of repairing the lots seems like a Herculean effort.
“What do you do?” Dawson says. “Do you rebuild there? Because what kind of view are you going to have and how many years is it going to take for trees or anything to grow back in that area. They’re not going to grow back quickly.”
The fire has stolen much of Key Harbour’s scenic charm. And while Dawson is thankful his scenery remains untouched, he’s aware of the difficult decisions left to cottagers in the area. “It’s going to be rough for them to try to figure out what to do,” he says.