Visualizing Climate Change and Environmental Disaster in Ontario

On 10 July, 1911, one of the deadliest forest fires in Ontario history ripped through the north, totally destroying the new gold rush community of Porcupine Lake. When it was all over, the blaze claimed seventy-three lives, burned over half a million acres, and caused millions of dollars in property damage. People burned to death in their homes, suffocated in mine shafts, and drowned while trying to take shelter in the storm-ravaged lakes. The nascent mines, surrounding communities, railways, and other infrastructure were reduced to twisted metal and rubble. The blaze made international headlines, and was called by the media the “worst disaster in Ontario history.”[1]

In an era of increasingly regular climate-related natural disasters, the Great Fire of 1911 proves instructive. What human and environmental factors made the fire so catastrophic? How did climate shape the fire and human responses to it? Finally, we all know that the climate is changing, but what does that look like on the local scale? How does 1911 compare to today?

Regular fire cycles are a natural part of Ontario’s northern forest ecology – burns like the Great Fire of 1911 occur in roughly 10 year intervals.[2] Northerners knew about these burn cycles and had a long history of living with fire. The annual report for the Ontario Bureau of Mines recorded burned forests every summer of its tenure in the province, starting in 1891.

Given the regular, predictable nature of northern fire, the second chapter of my dissertation argues the destructiveness of the Great Fire of 1911 stemmed from a combination of factors. In their hurry to exploit local gold, newcomers had not thought much about fire-proof construction. Adding to this problem, increased population concentration, insect attacks in 1905, and a policy of active fire suppression in Ontario led the build-up of excess fuel on the landscape.

At the same time, Ontario (along with the rest of North America) entered an especially hot, dry period which peaked in the summer of 1911.

The warm, dry period of the early twentieth century is not something I invented. Fire historian Stephen Pyne lists this early twentieth-century warming as one of the major contributing factors to the devastating forest fires in America in 1910 in his book Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910. But how did these climate patterns specifically effect Ontario, and can we, as Pyne has done for the United States, connect the Great Fire of 1911 to climatic warming in Ontario during these years?

The government of Canada keeps historic climate data on their website. The data is divided by weather station. Some go back further than others. In the case of Porcupine I was immediately hamstrung by the fact that Porcupine records only go back to 1922. So lets be clear: I cannot actually say what was going on in my study area in 1911 climatically. In fact, the furthest north I could get was Ottawa. However, at the risk of re-affirming Ottawa’s perceived place at the center of the universe, I can say with confidence that if it was hotter and dryer than normal in Ottawa, it was probably hotter and dryer than normal in Porcupine – the climates are close enough for the Ottawa data to be useful for seeing broader trends in Ontario climate for the early 20th Century.

The data shows that Ottawa recorded its hottest ever days on 3 July, 9 July, and 10 July (the day of the fire) in 1911, well below average rainfall, and light snow packs.[3] I can corroborate this finding with anecdotal evidence. The Globe recorded fifty-eight heat-related deaths and dangerously low city reservoirs on 8 July 1911.[4] Dominion Horticulturalist W. T. Macoun recorded a hot, dry spring (which shortened the flowering season for many blooms) and noted that “July was an extraordinarily hot month, one of the hottest ever experienced.” According to Macoun the mean temperature in July was a scorching 97.8 degrees Fahrenheit (36.5 degrees Celsius), nights remained hot, and rainfall was light.[5]

Just to get a sense of how hot it was in July of 1911, and to get a sense of what the government climate data looks like, take a look at the screenshots below. The two tables show the first 15 days and temps of Jul 1911 vs. Jul 2017 (degrees Celsius).

 

To look more closely at 1911, but also to think about how climate has changed over time long term, lets plug the climate data into some visualization software.

Here’s a graph I made in excel’s “pivot” showing the maximum high temps for each year for the entire period of record.

Now the obvious story here is 2012 (woah), but we can also see a cluster of high temperature years at the beginning the 20th Century, between 1901 and 1917, which is the hot period I talk about above.

Here’s precipitation:

Here we can see that the early 20th Century saw low average precipitation, again supporting the idea that Ontario suffered a particularly dry period before the great fire. And if we look ahead to the 21st century, precipitation begins fluctuates to greater low/high extremes.

And here’s snowfall, this time in Tableau.

That big dip between 1905 and 1915 is 1911, when snowpacks were abnormally light. But again, there is an interesting story starting around 1975 when we can see a real sustained drop in average snowfall.

The three graphs lend weight to my argument that 1911 was a particularly hot, dry year in Ontario, and they show how that period fits into the longer story of our climate.

They also show the gradual effects of climate change since about the mid-twentieth century.  Climate change is a gradual, nearly invisible process in our day to day lives, but looking at the historic climate data we can see how it has already impacted local patterns in precipitation and temperature in our communities.

Given the changing climate and the increase in extreme weather events in the 21st century – including forest fires – what lessons can we draw from the Great Fire of 1911?

In the aftermath of the catastrophe, the Great Fire of 1911 became memorialized as a transitional moment or a “baptism by fire” for mining in Northern Ontario. Porcupine’s ability to survive and thrive after the fire continues to be cited as a testament to the community’s toughness and tenacity on a difficult frontier. By 1914, Porcupine had gone from a relatively chaotic small-scale gold rush to a large-scale, low-grade, efficient, deep-mining industry on par with the biggest mining enterprises in the world. In my dissertation, I argue that the economic destruction of smaller mining companies allowed bigger syndicates to buy up valuable land and take control of best deposits after 1911.

How did the industry adapt to the disaster? In order to protect their assets against future calamities, Porcupine assembled forest-fire fighting infrastructure including fire-proof buildings, fire towers, and a full time fire-fighting force.[6]

These measures failed: Porcupine burned again in 1916, would experience a major mine fire in 1928, and is periodically plagued by bush fires right to the present.[7] Moreover, by focusing on fire prevention, Porcupine failed to adapt to other environmental problems, including flooding, land scarcity, food and water insecurity, and mine waste disposal – all of which caused significant problems down the road.

This is sort of a depressing take-away. But with a little more research, I think I can dig into this evidence for some examples of successful adaption to climate change and extreme weather in Ontario. In general, when facing environmental problems, did collaboration with community members produce better outcomes? What was the role of international science in environmental adaption? What specific characteristics of the successful companies post 1911 helped them to endure the trauma of the fire? There are other anomalies in those long-term graphs that produced less catastrophic histories – what happened during those years that allowed mining to proceed unscathed?

The answers to these sorts of questions could contain lessons that can potentially help Canadian resource communities adapt in the future.

Disclaimer: I am not a statistician, so I welcome any feedback and/or pointing out of my glaring errors.

Further Reading:

Global Historical Climatology Network

Historical Climatology

Climate History Network

Footnotes: 

[1] “Porcupine Disaster Intensifies; Refugees Fleeing from the Scene,” The Globe, 14 July 1911.

[2] I.D. Thompson, A. Perera, and David Euler, Ministry of Natural Resources, Ecology of a Managed Terrestrial Landscape: Patterns and Processes of Forest Landscapes in Ontario (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2000), 41-42.

[3] Government of Canada, “Ottawa data” in Almanac Averages and Extremes, Historical Climate Data, Accessed 18 May 2017, http://climate.weather.gc.ca/.

[4] “Record is now fifty-eight deaths,” The Globe, 8 July 1911.

[5] W.T. Macoun, “Report of the Dominion Horticulturalist,” No. 16, 31 March 1912, in Second Session of the Twelfth Parliament of the Dominion of Canada Session 1912-13 (Sessional Papers) (Vol. 9), 86.

[6] The Porcupine Advance documents a long history of fire protection measures. See “Can New Bush Fires be Prevented?” Porcupine Advance, 9 August 1916; “Town Council Passes Fire Bylaw,” Porcupine Advace, 22 November 1916; “The Heliograph used in Firefighting,” Porcupine Advance 31 January 1917; “Government Plans for Preventing Fires,” Porcupine Advance 14 February 1917; “Modern Electric Fire Alarm System,” Porcupine Advance, 19 September 1917; “Getting Ready for Fire Menace,” Porcupine Advance, 5 May 1920; “Cultivated Fields Would Remove Fire Menace,” Porcupine Advance,11 October 1922; “Mile Firegaurd Around Northern Town,” Porcupine Advance, 8 November 1922; “Fire Guard Around Timmins,” Porcupine Advance, 30 May 1923; “New Fire Towers,” Porcupine Advance, 9 January 1930.

[7] “Terrible Fires Sweep Northern Ontario,” Porcupine Advance, 5 August 1916; “Early Bush Fires,” Porcupine Advance, 2 June 1920; “45 Die in Big Fire,” Porcupine Advance, 14 October 1922; “Fire Rings About Towns,” Porcupine Advance, 4 November 1922; “Fire Hazard,” Porcupine Advance, 4 February 1923; “Final Hollinger Fire Report,” Porcupine Advance, 18 October 1928; “Forest Fires Rage,” Porcupine Advance, 1 August 1929.

Mica Jorgenson is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at McMaster University. She studies the environmental history of gold rushes around the globe. You can find her on twitter: @mica_amy

Posted in Blog, Uncategorized Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*