Dr Albert Lauder Kinsey & the Great Fire of 1916

The newly appointed Ontario Fire Marshall's official tally was 245 known dead. However, newspaper reports had the totals more than double that. Whatever the final number, the Great Fire of 1916 remains the worst in regards to the number of lives lost ever in a Canadian forest fire.

Today, other than the odd article about the fires that ripped through the vicinities of Matheson and Cochrane in 1916, very little remains - just a plaque.


The plaque sits in a park a few kilometers south of Matheson, Ontario on Highway 11. The province provides this historical overview of what happened that day in the summer of 1916:
Begun in 1902, the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway reached Cochrane in 1908. Scattered settlement began immediately and a number of hamlets came into being along the right of way. The summer of 1916 found settlers still clearing land in the time-honoured fashion – cutting down trees for building material, pulpwood or fuel, and burning the “slash” or unwanted debris.

There had been no rain for several weeks and the woods were tinder-dry. By July 27, several of the settlers’ fires had spread to dangerous proportions. Two days later, all of them were united by high winds into one vast conflagration, extending forty miles from Nellie Lake to Ramore and burning easterly at from 25 to 40 miles per hour. In that one terrible day, the settlements of Iroquois Falls, Porquis Junction, Kelso, Nushka, Matheson and Ramore were largely or completely destroyed, and the hamlets of Homer and Monteith partially razed. A smaller fire largely levelled Cochrane and did much damage in the surrounding region.

For several days, the fire shared headlines with the First World War, and the newspapers were filled with stories of horror and heroism, of sudden death and miraculous escape. Most of those who survived owed their lives to the proximity of some body of water, while others escaped bytrain. The actual death toll will probably never been known, but the official estimate stands at 223 – the majority of them in Matheson and Nushka.

Fire-fighting efforts were largely futile and it was only rain early in August that finally removed the danger of the further outbreak. For Porquis Junction and Cochrane it had been the second disastrous fire in five years. The “Matheson Fire” was by far the worst in Canadian history, from the standpoint of lives lost, and it was exceeded in this respect only by three other forest fires in all of North America. It destroyed some 500,000 acres of forest, bad enough though less than the destruction caused by the Porcupine Fire of 1911 and the later Haileybury Fire of 1922.

Apart from the heart-warming response it elicited from individuals, official bodies and businesses throughout the province, the Matheson Fire had one further good result. It made horrifyingly plain the need for organized counter-measures against forest fire and in December 1916 a Forest Protection Branch was added to the Department of Lands, Forests and Mines. Dr. E.J. Zavitz, its first head, celebrated his 91st birthday [in 1966], and maintained a lively interest in the activities of the Department. In 1917, the Forest Fires Prevention Act was passed by the Ontario legislature, the basis of our present forest protection legislation and the keystone of our conviction that no such catastrophe as the Matheson Fire can ever happen again.
Soon after the fire, many of the local residents started asking for compensation for their losses. By 1920, the issue was still not resolved and so the Premier of Ontario asked for a tribunal to be set up. On the tribunal, Dr. Albert Lauder Kinsey of nearby Hearst, Ontario was asked to represent the local landowners. An article from 18 December 1920 edition of the The Toronto World, tells the story:

Little is know about Dr. Kinsey's involvement from that point as he contracted TB in early 1921 and died 16 months later in April 1922.

Author Michael Barnes completes the story by saying that:
the big fire was do doubt caused by an unusually hot and dry summer, coupled with the spread of brush fires resulting from land-clearing. The claims were not met until more than six years later and eventually resulted in individual cash rewards.
He later adds that one good thing did come from the fires and that was a bumper crop of blueberries in the years following.

To find out more about the Great Fire of 1916, take a look at Michael Barnes book "The Killer in the Bush: The Great Fires of Northeastern Ontario", published by Boston Mills Press in 1987. It is available in many local libraries.

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