The first fire started a little before noon, approximately 11 a.m., on Wednesday, July 17. A garden shed on Fraserburg Road about 18 kilometres east of Bracebridge, Ont. caught fire. Murray Medley, the Bracebridge fire chief, and his crew responded to the call, extinguishing it quickly. But before they had time to investigate the cause of the fire, dispatch contacted Medley about a second fire; this one at the historic Bangor Lodge.
“The one out at Fraserburg, we’re still working on trying to get a cause for it,” Medley says. “Normally we would spend a little extra time on that, but because we got all these other calls piled on top of it, it’s kind of taken second place, so we haven’t really had a chance to get back to it.”
By 3:30 p.m. the historic Bangor Lodge, five kilometres west of Bracebridge on Lake Muskoka, was totally engulfed in flames with firefighters battling the blaze with hoses. The lodge’s thick wooden beams made the fire difficult to put out, but eventually Medley and his team extinguished the blaze. The nearly 90-year-old lodge, however, didn’t make it.
The cause of the second fire was also a mystery. “Definitely it was something suspicious going on there because there was nothing there that could cause a fire,” Medley says. “There’s no sources of ignition.” The lodge has been abandoned since 2007 when it was sold in a public auction and had no hydro connected to the building. No one was hurt during the fire and considering the lodge had been sold and was in the midst of being divided up, Medley says it likely would have been torn down anyway.
Due to the suspicious nature of the fire, however, investigation was turned over to the Bracebridge OPP with them releasing a statement on July 18 that “the fire is suspicious and police are looking for any potential witnesses that may have seen activity on the property that may assist in the ongoing investigation.”
Despite Medley and his crew’s hectic day, the worst was yet to come. Around 7 p.m. that evening, dispatch received a call about the Muskoka Timber Mill having caught fire. Located about eight kilometres north of Bracebridge on Manitoba Street, this fire proved devastating. Crews were called in from Gravenhurst, Huntsville, Lake of Bays, and Muskoka Lakes to help combat the flames.
Pump trucks shuttled water to the scene from a nearby hydrant as the flames spread and the steel structure of the mill collapsed. The scene was “chaotic,” wrote Bracebridge Mayor Graydon Smith in a tweet, urging citizens to stay away to give the pump trucks more space.
After several hours, the fire was contained and eventually extinguished. All that was left was smouldering piles of wreckage and scattered sawdust. “The mill is a complete loss,” Medley says.
Following in the footsteps of the previous two fires, no discernible cause has yet to be determined. “It’s such massive destruction there it’s going to be almost impossible to determine an exact cause,” Medley says. What they do know is that the fire started in the northwest corner of the building. Investigation of the fire has been turned over to the Ontario Fire Marshal’s office who stayed on scene long after the fire was extinguished, beginning on the building’s northwest side and working their way through the rubble. They will compile a report, theorizing the cause of the fire. “If they can’t get an exact cause, it will go down as undetermined,” Medley says.
No one was injured in this fire, but the mill employed about 40 people who are facing the reality of potential job loss. Medley says the owner of the mill has kept on all of the employees for now, but “unless he can get some other systems up and running relatively quick, it’s really difficult for him to rebuild a complete sawmill on short order.” Medley estimates that it will take at least a year to get a new mill up and running.
While the three fires do seem suspiciously connected, Medley says they’re not. “They’ve all got their own little identities going on,” he says.
He does, however, point to the danger fires can cause during summer months. While hot, dry weather doesn’t cause structural fires, it does make them difficult to combat. “When you’ve got guys working in what amounts to snowmobile suits in 35 to 40-degree weather there, that obviously puts a toll on our people.”
Medley advises citizens to be proactive about potential fires. If you see even a whiff of smoke, it’s important to check it out. It may just be a campfire, but even smouldering ash can reignite. In fact, Medley and his crew had to return to the scene of the mill on Sunday to extinguish a smoking pile of sawdust.
“If you’re unsure of [the smoke], it’s nice if you have the ability to slow down and check for sure what it is,” Medley says. “Because you can help us if you give a bit of a description of what’s going on when you call it in. Our dispatchers can let us know.”