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Water bombers attack Minaki forest fire

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CULLODEN LAKE, Ont. -- Water bombers put on a spectacular aerial performance yesterday afternoon, scooping water from this secluded lake to fight a forest fire just a few kilometres away in the heart of northwestern Ontario cottage country.

As of last night, more than 50 firefighters and six water bombers battled the blaze that began Sunday afternoon near Catherine Lake and destroyed several cottages there before jumping Highway 596 -- the road to the community of Minaki -- and heading north along both sides of the road.

Highway 596 was still closed from Pickerel Lake to Minaki last night, although emergency vehicles continued to escort people stranded in cottages, camps and resorts out of the area.

Betty Wires, a spokeswoman with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, said the fire was still 15 kilometres south of Minaki, where about 1,000 residents in the region remain.

She said 450 hectares of forest have burned. No injuries were reported.

Wires wouldn't comment on how many cottages at Catherine Lake had been destroyed by fire.

"We had a land specialist go in and assess property damage, but at this point our intention is to contact the owners first," she said.

A cottager from Catherine Lake told yesterday how she watched neighbours overcome with emotion as they watched their residences burn.

"I saw about four on fire," said Linda, who leases a cottage at Tarryall Resort on the lake. "We were on our boat watching.

"The people in the boat next to us owned one of the places burning. They were devastated. They couldn't even watch.

"There was nothing anyone could do for them. We felt really helpless."

Linda, who wouldn't give her last name, was evacuated from the resort on Sunday night and returned to her home in Ste. Anne just before Ontario Provincial Police closed Highway 596.

Last night, she and family members were preparing to return, although police still had a stretch of the highway blocked off.

Ken and Jane Guntner spent most of the afternoon yesterday in patio chairs at their year-round cottage home on Culloden Lake as the large yellow water bombers made pass after pass -- no more than 25 metres from the edge of their dock.

Culloden Lake is just three kilometres from Catherine Lake.

"Fire is the greatest danger around us here. While this is impressive to see, it's sad to think that just over those trees someone could be losing their place," said Ken, who is retired from the City of Winnipeg.

"These aircraft are incredible. It just blows me away the job they can do."

In just 75 minutes yesterday afternoon, three water bombers made a combined 55 passes. Every time the tankers touch down they each take in about 6,100 litres of water.

From the Guntner home, clouds of grey smoke could be seen above the tree line to the northwest. "We're seeing something spectacular here," said Mary Horrock, a neighbour of the Guntners. "I hope we never see it again."

The fire is located about 25 kilometres northwest of Kenora.

Wires said while the fire was "stable" and responding well to an aggressive attack by 12 four-person fire crews and three local volunteer firefighting departments, the hot weather and tinder-dry forest conditions were proving a stubborn combination.

"Clearly, it's very hot," she said. "Crews are doing a tremendous job, particularly protecting valuables like cottages and buildings." The blaze is being referred to as Kenora 110.

Tarryall Resort and Big North Lodge, about six kilometres south of Minaki, were evacuated, but Minaki Lodge wasn't, said an employee.

"No, the lodge isn't being evacuated and it won't be," said a woman who answered the phones at Minaki Lodge yesterday. She referred all calls to an information line.

Many people who left and then returned to Minaki and other lakes yesterday were turned away by police.

Jason Gard of Winnipeg, who also vacations at Tarryall Resort, said he was fishing on a nearby lake when he and his buddies noticed black smoke in the air. When they came through a small creek that runs from Pelican Pouch Lake to Catherine Lake, they were shocked.

"It was already out of control," Gard said. "It was just this ball of orange. There were a couple of cottages burning, and a water bomber was soaking a boathouse. But the flames jumped to the boathouse, and you could just see steam pouring off it.

"They way it moved through the treetops was awesome. There's no other word to describe it. It just ate things up in its way."

Another witness, Mark Jeffries, whose in-laws have a place at Tarryall, was also boating when he noticed smoke. The Winnipegger said he heard a loud pop, and then watched as a tall pine tree exploded in flames.

"It may have been a propane tank that exploded. This tree just ignited," said Jeffries, whose family was forced out Sunday, leaving three cats back at the cabin. The family still couldn't return yesterday.

-- with files from Carol Sanders
jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 19, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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