All governments bungled aid efforts for bush fire victims

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Last week’s column offered an account of the bush fires that plagued Luther and the adjoining townships in 1874.

Some of the fires had started in July, and had burned away through the summer, reaching their peak in September. Smoke drifted into nearby towns, choking people in Arthur and so obscuring the sky in Fergus that some people had to light lamps in the daytime.

The entire town of Orangeville was threatened when a strong wind showered burning embers on buildings, lodging between cedar shingles. Volunteers there put out dozens of fires before the wind changed, sparing Orangeville from destruction.

No accurate assessment of the damage, which included burned out houses and barns, crops, fences and implements, has survived. No agency of the governments at any level had emergency responsibilities to cover situations such as these bush fires.

And there were at least a dozen fires, none in itself very large. Winds would drive them in unpredictable directions, and flying embers would cause the fires to leapfrog ahead.

Nevertheless, by the third week of September it was obvious to most observers that this was a major disaster.

The first to raise the issue of aid from outside the affected communities was a rural correspondent of the Fergus News Express, who noted that, under normal circumstances, neighbours would help families who suffered disaster, but this was impossible when all the neighbours were affected as well.

Soon others picked up the issue.

On Sept. 27, Charles Clarke, the Liberal MPP for Centre Wellington, had a letter published in the Toronto Globe calling for government assistance.

“Every day brings tidings of disasters hitherto unreported,” wrote Clarke, “and the losses are so extensive as to be beyond the reach of local relief, either private or municipal.” Clarke noted that the provincial government had voted $25,000 in 1871 for the relief of sufferers from fires in the Ottawa area. He thought the situation in North Wellington and Grey just as serious.

Clarke concluded that “the Government would do well to send an experienced official from one of the departments to make enquiry upon the spot, and to verify the statements of distress which daily reach the outside settlements. I am satisfied that if such enquiry is instituted, ample cause will be found for immediate action upon the re-assembling of Parliament.”

It is interesting that these comments should be made by an MPP of the same party as the Mowat government. Clarke, as a strategist for the Liberal Party, had known Mowat for some 15 years. I suspect that Clarke had already raised the subject of aid with Mowat, and had been put off. Therefore, he launched his public appeal. He also encouraged municipal councils to pressure the provincial government for assistance. His letter to the Globe was reprinted by several newspapers in Wellington.

Immediate support for Clarke came from an unexpected quarter.

Dr. George Orton of Fergus, the federal Conservative MP and Clarke’s bitterest political foe, followed a week later with a letter fully endorsing Clarke’s proposal. As well, Dr. Orton offered fresh evidence of the scope of the suffering: “Having been called professionally to Luther some weeks ago, just after the worst fires had occurred, I listened to the many tales of terrible suffering, and what made them more distressing was the fact that many of the sufferers were those whose lives appeared to be beset by more than the usual share of struggling and hardship, and these poor men with large families dependent upon them, had, after having just begun to feel that they had at last hewed out for themselves a home, to witness the destruction of the result of all their labours and hardship, and find themselves left penniless and homeless in the world.”

Grammarians might fault the Doctor for his run-on sentence, but he summed up the issue superbly.

Meanwhile, there were local efforts to start relief efforts. The reeve of Fergus called a meeting on Sept. 28 to discuss the issue. Several Fergus businessmen believed that their town had some obligations, because many of the affected people were within the Fergus trading area.

Organizers were disappointed at the poor turnout at the meeting – only about 30 people. Nevertheless, those present agreed to proceed. They appointed a committee consisting of A.D. Ferrier and the local clergymen to investigate, and report back in two weeks with recommendations.

John Smith in the Elora Observer called for a similar meeting in Elora, but no one stepped forward to organize one. In the end, no formal aid program came from the Fergus initiative. It is quite likely, though, that the various churches organized private efforts.

Nor was aid forthcoming from other quarters. Charles Clarke’s efforts with the provincial government went nowhere. Provincial officials were still studying the matter at the end of 1874. No municipal council offered aid either, though in this era it must be remembered that local councils had few financial resources and huge demands for road and bridge improvements.

The issue of assistance for fire victims faded during November 1874. Many farmers had not been affected greatly by the fires, and the crops were good in 1874. Stores in Luther Village (Grand Valley) reported their best year ever. The usual fall events (township fairs in October and ploughing matches in November) took place as scheduled, though attendance was down from previous years.

The matter of bush fire aid resurfaced at the December meeting of Wellington County council in December. Col. Nathan Higinbotham, the Guelph businessman who sat as the federal member for North Wellington, wrote a letter requesting that county council consider offering aid, and proposing a fresh round of pressure on the provincial government.

The letter was referred to a committee, which recommended that the county take no action until the provincial government decided what, if anything, it would do. The only constructive step was a recommendation that the reeves of the affected townships compile a list of losses, to be presented at the next session of county council, at the end of January 1875.

All the affected townships filed reports as requested, which were then sent to a special committee of county council. Unfortunately, these documents have not survived, so we have no idea of their contents. After evaluating the reports, the committee recommended that no action be taken. This infuriated many council members. When the report came to a vote, it was rejected.

A motion then came to the floor calling for the appointment of a neutral arbitrator to assess the actual situation, and to produce a list of those in the most distress. This lost as well, by a vote of 18-16. Next came a motion that $1,000 be allocated for relief, to be expended on the direction of the warden. This one passed, but by the slim margin of 20-16.

The warden in 1875, James Laidlaw of Guelph Township, made a careful assessment of those in need. He decided that no aid would go to anyone who had fire insurance, and that the aid was to be expended on seed for the 1875 crop, which he estimated to cost $1.25 per acre. In total, Laidlaw paid out only $858 of the $1,000 allocation.

This $858 is, as far as I can determine, the only government aid offered to those who suffered loss in the 1874 fires. The appeals to the province came to nothing, and in the spring of 1875 the matter was forgotten when Mowat called a general election.

It is not going too far to call this a total failure of emergency relief assistance. The various levels of government tried, in this case successfully, to pass responsibility from one to the other.

Public sentiment, as reflected in elected officials, did not support relief efforts in general. High property taxes were the persistent issue at election time, and no one wanted to bear responsibility for an increase in the mil rate. Most discussions focused on identifying the truly needy, and fretting over potential abuses. There was also a general feeling that individuals should carry fire insurance, and that those who didn’t must bear the responsibility alone.

And what happened to those most affected?

The aid from the county undoubtedly helped those who stayed and endured. But for the truly destitute, it was too little and too late. Most of these drifted away during the fall and winter following the fire, abandoning their burned-out dreams.

How many families left their farms as a result of the fires? It is impossible to determine on the basis of surviving evidence. As well, some farmers were in a better position to cope. Newspaper accounts list seven farmers burned out on Con. 3 and 4 of Arthur. Six of them are still on their farms in the maps in the 1877 Atlas of Wellington. At the other extreme, to the east, on Con. 4 and 5 of Luther, 11 farmers were completely burned out. Only one was still there in 1877.

There were environmental repercussions from the fires as well. Farmers regularly shot lynx and wildcats during the winter of 1874-75, after they were displaced by the destruction of the bush. Wolves were also a problem. Some farmers lost upwards of 20 of their flocks to wolves following the fire. We can only guess at the full range of environmental effects from these fires, on landscape, all wildlife, and water courses.

The 1874 fire epidemic was the greatest disaster in Wellington County in the 19th century. Effects were felt not only by farm families, but also in the local economy, and on the landscape. It is a large subject, and one that, to my knowledge, has never been explored. If any students reading this are searching for a local topic for a major paper, they could find no better one than the 1874 fires in north Wellington.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Sept. 17, 1999.

Thorning Revisited