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Towers and Saskatchewan

Fire Towers

Submitted by Arnold Fonos

The devastating fires, which swept the country in the early 1900's, were a prelude of what was to come unless some kind of control could be maintained. The Department of Natural Resources soon began constructing fire control towers at approximately fifty-mile intervals across northern Saskatchewan. This distance was chosen to assure that radio contact could be made between tower men. The height of the towers varied from between thirty-five and one hundred feet. They were constructed of either wood or steel.

The first fire lookout station in the Big River district was a temporary structure situated on the hill overlooking the town, it was soon abandoned when a more adequate tower was built on Bodmin Hill, six miles east of Big River in 1926. This tower was of wooden construction and although it was only thirty-five feet high it was built on the highest land in the district, about three hundred feet above the surrounding countryside. The little room on top of the tower was glassed in on all sides offering an uninhibited view in all directions of many miles of forest and lakes. The equipment in the tower, as in all other towers, consisted of a fire finder, two-way radio, and a pair of field glasses.

Bodmin Tower - 1965. Heidi Fonos climbing it.
Bodmin Fire Tower, 1965. Heidi Fonos climbing it.

Bodmin Tower 1964.
Bodmin Fire Tower 1964.

With his powerful field glasses, the tower man is constantly scanning the terrain. When smoke is sighted, he turns to his fire finder and takes a bearing on the fire. The fire finder is a disc-shaped apparatus mounted on a turntable. It is very simple but adequately constructed with a peep-site and a hair-site. With a finder centred on a fire, the exact degree of azimuth can be determined. The tower man next contacts the nearest tower by two-way radio and asks the tower man to take a cross-shot on the fire. The intersecting point of the two finders determines the location of the fire after it has been plotted on a map. A report is sent immediately to headquarters and men and equipment are sent to the area as soon as possible. This means of prevention has greatly reduced the number and severity of forest fires in northern Saskatchewan.

The first tower man in the Big River district was reported to be Joe Nicholson and later Robert (Scotty) Purcell worked for several years. Bruce McTaggart started working as tower man in 1941, for the first three years he was at Otter Hill Tower located about ten miles northwest of Big River. In 1945, he took over duties at Bodmin Tower and remained there until he retired in 1962. During his years as tower man, he sent daily weather reports to Prince Albert by two-way radio. For a couple of years, he taught weather forecasting to other tower men.

Arnold Fonos was tower man from 1963 to 1965, at which time the old tower was torn down and a new sixty-foot steel tower was built.

In 1965, Stan Brettle took over duties as tower man on Bodmin Tower. He remained tower man until 1979 when he retired and moved to Prince Albert.

Bernice Reimer was tower person on Bodmin Tower from 1980 to 1998 when she retired. Bernice still lives in the Big River area and helps out at Lakewood Lodge regularly.

John Fonos who was tower man on Rabbit Hill tower from 1988 moved to Big River and took over the duties at Bodmin Tower in May of 1999 and worked as tower man until 2001 when he retired in September of that year.

There were safety concerns as to the reliability of these towers and so in August of 2001 all fire towers in the Big River district were condemned and all tower men were given alternate duties including fixed-wing patrol, which had been instituted before this time and are continuing to the present time.

In 1997 & 1998, the Big River district was enlarged to include Chitek Lake area and the Dore Lake and Green Lake areas. So, instead of having one fire tower in Big River jurisdiction we now had seven towers. These towers all remained operational until their closure in 2001, at that time Birch Tower located about 35 km's SW of Chitek Lake was manned by Laurie Booker, Bodmin Tower which is located approximately eight km's south of Big River was manned by John Fonos, Dore Tower, west of Michel's Point on Dore Lake was manned by Henry Meyers, Dube Tower, located approximately 70 km's north of Green Lake on the west side of highway #155, was manned by Wayne Desjarlais, a long time resident of the Green Lake area and still lives in the area, Green Lake Tower located 5 km' south of Green Lake on the east side of Green Lake was manned by Kyle Gardiner for a few years and by Archie Morin at the time of its closure in 2001, Rabbit Hill Tower located 15 km's SE of Sled Lake was 90' high, built in 1948 and over the years manned by a number of different individuals such as (Scotty) or Robert Purcell, Allan Merasty, Eugene Johnson, Frank Schloegel, John Fonos and finally his son Jonathon Fonos was on Rabbit Hill Tower at the time of its closing in 2001. Since his job as tower man was eliminated, Jonathon worked at the headquarters in Big River and in 2003 the tower at Dore Lake was replaced and now Henry Meyers and Jonathon Fonos share the duties as tower man on this new 90 feet free-standing tower.

Vimy Tower is the last of the seven located approximately 15 km's N.E. of Chitek Lake. At the time of its closing in 2001, Robert Weal was the tower man and works out of the base in Chitek Lake doing fixed-wing patrols and maintenance work at Chitek Base.

The network of towers that dotted the landscape for many years has changed very much from the past and only time will tell what the future holds for these towers which served as eyes on the forest to protect our forests from the ravages of forest fires.

In years gone by, there were several towers across Saskatchewan's north that were also used as weather stations and at 1:20 each afternoon, the radio branch operator from Prince Albert would call and ask for the fire weather. The equipment given to each tower man for this purpose consisted of a rain gauge, a little building for the thermometers to keep them out of the sun and book with charts to estimate wind speed and cross-references to come up with a number indicating how high the fire hazard was.

Tower men lived a very simple life, many staying in these isolated areas for months at a time. From my personal experience as a tower man in 1963, my take-home pay was $218.00 per month. If necessary you were expected to work 7 days a week (Saturday was considered a working day and if you worked on Sundays the arrangement was that you got time off if weather permitted). If the fire hazard was high you went up in the tower about 8:00 in the evening to make a final check on your district and either the Conservation Officer or the Patrolman would call to check that all was well.

Sometimes tower men were called upon to relay messages, as radiograms were very popular in the early days as telephones were not common in the north and sometimes radio transmitting was not the best. For example, the Bodmin Tower relayed messages to Dore Lake, to D.N.R, Construction Branch crews, to timber cruisers in the Dore Lake area and the Landing and Boat on Cowan Lake moving the logs to the mill at Big River.

This is the history of the fire towers in the Big River area and we hope that these beacons will continue to be part of the fire suppression system.

Saskatchewan Environment

Submitted by Arnold Fonos

The Big River district is surrounded by an abundant supply of timber; therefore, the urgent need for fire protection became apparent in the early years. In 1914, Mr Robb, of the Federal Forestry Department, approached Mr Moare and offered him a position as Forestry Supervisor for Northern Saskatchewan. Mr Moare had been living in the Big River area since 1909. His love for nature made him accept the job.

The new location for the Forestry Preserve was to be in Big River so Mr Moare and his family were stationed at Otter Creek, about twelve miles from town. Mr Moare was Forestry Supervisor and Game Warden of this reserve. The Field Officer's house often became a stopping place for any travellers who ventured into the community. In 1915, Mr Moare moved his family closer to Big River. They established headquarters about 3 miles from the townsite. The early fires and vast territories of wilderness kept the ranger occupied and absorbed with his work. Mr Moare would often be away from his family patrolling the area or in the city at a business meeting. After the drastic 1919 fire and the closing of the mill, the Moare family left for British Columbia to seek employment in the sawmill.

Later, Joe Nicholson and Ernie Over became supervisors. The early division had three main branches: Forestry (managed by Mr C. Potter), Game (operated by Mr Newton), and Fisheries (run by Mr Maxwell). Mr Ernie Over was the supervisor in charge of all three sections. The duty of each Field Officer varied with his particular area. The forestry branch specialized in fire protection and scanning the districts for potential fire breaks. The fisheries department focused on the correct fishing seasons and patrolled the various lakes testing for the availability of fish in that particular area. The Game Division served as a lookout for poachers and worked to preserve the natural supply of fur-bearing animals in the district.

The headquarters were moved to the old airbase and in 1930 the three separate branches joined to form the Department of Natural Resources. The Provincial government took over the management of the three Federal Forestry Divisions.

During this time, Mr Over used a motor toboggan to patrol the many remote lakes in the area. This early Skidoo provided transportation to the various locations that the D.N.R. was responsible for supervising. Later the division moved across the tracks on the north corner lot of Mill Avenue.

In 1955, Mr Hank Randall became the conservation officer after Mr Over's death. Hank was transferred from Island Falls and was stationed here for eighteen years.

The D.N.R. representative is responsible for submitting a yearly budget, all money or dues collected and office administration, the Dept. of Tourism and Renewable Resources work and cooperating with the Park. There is an aircraft base at Prince Albert that covers the northern "fringe" area searching for fire outbreaks. In 1965, the D.N.R. headquarters moved to their new location across from the High School.

The D.N.R. is now responsible for the enforcement of Migratory Bird Convention Act; Tourism and Renewable Resource Act; Fisheries (Federal and Saskatchewan) Acts; Forest Act; Game Act; Fur Act; Provincial Park Protection Act; Prairie and Forest Fire Act; Campsites (recreation); Cowan Lake Dam; also regulation under each Act; Training new crews; general maintenance; co-operating over the desk with the public. The district size is about forty-five miles long and twenty-five miles wide (this includes the top half of township fifty - two to sixty and ranges six to nine). Ted Arsenault remained in charge of the Big River district until his retirement in 1983. Ted had a very full career with Resources, spanning 37 years from 1946, starting in Big River then marking timber at Dore Lake, spending the following summer in Big River. In 1947 & 1949 Ted spent at forestry training school in Prince Albert. In 1950, Ted was given a permanent posting at Beaupre (between Sled Lake & Dore Lake). Ted was responsible for fisheries, fur, game, forestry and fire control.

Since those days, Ted & May have moved a few times going to Pierceland in November 1953, then to Loon Lake in 1961 and back to Big River in 1973 exchanging places with Hank Randall who had been in Big River since 1955. Ted retired in 1983 and him and May moved to Squamish, British Columbia close to there and family and continue to live there at present.

Upon Ted's retirement, Don Burant came to Big River from Carrot River and worked with Don Thiessen.

At that time, several campgrounds were being serviced, Sherry Gunderson and Carol Klassen worked at collecting camping fees and cleaning campsites, while Abe Bergen and Arnold Fonos were responsible for washrooms, garbage and fish sheds as well as the removal of dead and blown down trees from campsites. Some of the campsites in the Big River district were Cowan Dam, Highway campsite 4 km's south of Big River, Ness Lake, Nesslin Lake, Zig Zag campground on Delaronde Lake, Top Lake and Hackett Lake as well as Beaupre, Shirley Lake, Michel Point & Smoothstone.

In 1990, many of the campgrounds were either closed or privatized so at present Sask. Environment is not involved directly with these campsites. With the privatization of campgrounds, Sherry Gunderson and Arnold Fonos joined Raymond Leach, Keith Moritz, Terry Breker and Abe Bergen, which were at that time two three-man fire crews. These were later increased to two five-man crews with more loaded patrols and training of type two firefighters to assist the Initial Attack Crews.

Sask. Environment is also involved in the restocking of fish in many small lakes in the district such as Ted's, Shirley, Snell, Jet, Terra, Morin and Delaronde. These fish includes; splake, brown trout, walleye, rainbow, brook and lake trout.

In 1993, Don Burant retired and moved to Prince Albert where he resided until his untimely death in December of 2003.

Ernie Gulkiewich came to Big River from Buffalo Narrows to replace Don Burant and Ernie remained in charge of the Big River district until his retirement in 1996 at which time Ernie & his wife Jeannie moved to Kelowna, British Columbia.

It was at this time in 1996 that big changes started to take place in the Big River district as a division was made between the resource sector and the fire suppression portion of Sask. Environment. With Glenn Honig being in charge of the resource portion and Don Thiessen being given the new position as Forest Protection Officer. As well, Dore Lake base was closed down and some of the buildings and all the fire equipment and the Initial Attack crews were given positions at the Big River firebase. These included Leo Grimard, Rod Laliberte, Shawn Pellitier, Eldon Edquist and George Bouvier who came to work in Big River in May of 1996. At this time, only Leo Grimard still works out of Big River of the original Dore Lake crew.

In 1998, Green Lake and Chitek Lake became part of the Big River district, so since 1996 the Big River district has been growing so that at present the fire management zone extends to Dore Lake on the north, Prince Albert National Park on the east, south along Sturgeon River, down to Fish Lake then west to the Big River Reserve and west to a line south of Chitek Lake to Highway #4. This highway forms the western boundary and extends north of Meadow Lake to a line approximately six miles north of Dube tower and then east to Dore Lake.

The headquarters of Resources and Fire control in Big River was moved from its location on the east side of Big River to the enlarged facilities at the Big River Nursery, this took place in 1997. A helicopter pad was built and hard-surfaced, some renovations were done to build a fire cache and recently a new double-wide trailer unit was set up to provide accommodations for staff, pilots and engineers temporarily assigned to our headquarters.

In 1997, Al Hrynkiw came to Big River as a conservation officer to assist Glenn Honig in the resource sector. He came from Pierceland. Al and Lori have one son, Jeffery. Glenn and his wife Colleen have 3 children, Christopher, Michelle and Aaron. Both families reside in Big River.

Don Thiessen, has lived in the Big River District all his life and has been with Sask. Environment for approximately 30 years. Don & Brenda have two sons, one daughter and grandchildren as well.

Terry Breker and his wife Brenda, lifetime residents of the Big River area have three sons and one daughter. Terry has worked for Sask. Environment for over 25 years and works full time as a firebase supervisor.

Lynda Reed, has worked as a secretary for 28 years. She has worked under several conservation officers in the Big River office. Lynda and her husband Bruce have two children, Brooke & Lance. They reside on a farm approximately ten kilometres north of Big River.

Monty Thompson, worked at the Big River Nursery as a maintenance man and came to fire control in 1998 as a fire protection worker, working on fires and keeping an eye on maintaining our pumps and saws as well. Monty's last job was a mechanic for fire equipment. He retired earlier this year and resides in Big River.

Fire suppression has changed considerable over the years. In 1965, when I worked as a patrolman in Big River people were picked up of the streets or from high school and taken in the back of a truck to the fire, there were few safety concerns at that time as compared to the trained, well-equipped firefighters who suppress forest fires today. Air support was very limited, outside of the fixed-wing air patrol flown by Ron Wilson who contacted the tower regularly. Water bombers were not being used in 1965 but came on the scene a few years later. Now we also have a sophisticated system for detecting lightning strikes so quick action can be taken to find and extinguish these fires while they are small. There is also a system for keeping track of the weather so equipment and personnel can be prepared based on the alert system, based on actual forecasts for fire weather.

At present, there are four five-man crews in the Big River district, two in Big River as well as support staff, Arnold Fonos who has worked for Sask. Environment for 28 years, from 1963-65 as tower man, 1965-67 as a patrolman from 1982-90 as campground maintenance and 1991 to present as fire protection and as responsible for maintaining fire cache and equipment.

Sherry Gunderson has worked in Big River since 1980 as a campground attendant, fire protection worker and now as radio dispatcher at the Big River base. She and her husband Gordon and son Derek live along Cowan Lake just north of town.

The fire crews consist of Raymond Leach as Crew Leader in Big River and his crew, Gary Walker, Phane Ray, Greg Chabot and Brian Moyer.

Leo Grimard is the crew leader of the second crew in Big River and his crew consists of Keith Moritz, Chris Wilson, Ryan Sandry and Doug Sinclair. Floyd Sinclair is the firebase supervisor in Green Lake and his family is long-time residents of the area. Stan Morin is crew leader of 1 crew in Green Lake. His crewmembers are; Sueki Bishop, Kyle Gardiner and Leslie Sayese. Reg McKay is the 2nd crew leased. His crew consists of; Adrian Durocher, Kevin Rediron, Melvin Durocher and Chad Laliberte. Jim Laliberte and Lloyd Laliberte are support staff.

Some of the people that worked in the Big River district during those years were Jim Brooker and wife who lived in the back quarters of the DNR along Mill Ave and 2nd street north.

SERM Fire Crew.
SERM Fire Crew:

Back Row:

Keith Moritz, Phane Ray. Chris Wilson, Jeff Watier,
Monty Thompson, Ryan Sandry, John Fonos.

Front Row:

Sherry Gunderson, Henry Meyers, Raymond Leach,
Todd Devonshire, Kerri Watchorn

Hank Randall who gave me my first job with DNR, Malcolm Broatch and George Redford who were timber cruisers north of Big River. Malcolm worked with us in Big River when Nesslin recreation site was established, surveying and mapping for the cabins and campsites and beach area in about 1965. This was when the new road was put into Nesslin on the top of the ridge; the old road came into Nesslin closer to the ranger's cabin. Malcolm died tragically on Dore Lake in the fall of 1970 in a boating accident trying to get to his sawmill on Big Island on Dore Lake.

George Redford worked in the Dore Lake area when Barry McLellan was conservation officer at Dore Lake, marking timber for the Sask. Timber Board who logged out about 10 million board feet. This was hauled to the north end of Cowan Lake and boomed to the mill at Big River. In later years, Lester Kilbreath manned the boat with an assistant.

Betty Reed, married to Earl Reed of Big River, who I would say, was the best camp cook around. Betty was a very hard worker and always kept the crews fed whether in a bush camp or on a DNR construction crew. She mentioned how many times unexpected guests would arrive expecting a meal and she would always come through. On several occasions, I was the recipient of her hospitality with pie & coffee.

Allan Blythe was crew foreman for the construction branch when the last section of road was rebuilt between the forks near Cowan Dam and Dore Lake. Allan was a very patient man who gave me a job in the fall of 1963 after the towers were closed for the season. Hank Randall took me up to the camp and Allan told me to take the buggy and play with it in the ditch. It didn't take long to learn how to appreciate that machine, thanks to his patience. At that time the road was completed between Appleby Creek and Barney's crew a few miles to the south.

Bill Miller was my partner when I was tower man and Bill was patrolman when the weather permitted. Hank would send us out to pour cement for campsites at Cowan Dam, Ness, Nesslin and the South campground. Before this, there wasn't any tourist industry in the Big River area.

I recall going with Bill up to the Egg Lake meadows to check for ground fires, after the farmers in the area burnt off the meadows. It was a common practice to burn the meadows before the fire hazard got to high too get rid of the old bottom and control the willows. We did find some ground fires, which we put out, but we also found mud. Bill had a 1951 I.H. 1/2 ton truck he called the corn binder. By the time we realized how soft the meadow was, we were a long way from civilization, so we used 2 x 4 planks and some branches and a jack-all, we worked late into the night to get out of there. Bill left the department in 1965 and in 1970, died tragically when the truck he was operating went through the ice on Dore Lake.

Cowan Dam has had a long history from the early 1900s when it was built out of wood to the concrete structure there is today as well as a fish ladder to allow fish to come upstream into Cowan Lake.

We lived at the forks of Dore Lake junction and Green Lake. My dad had a store that he purchased from Walter Hegland in 1950. It was called the halfway coffee shop.

The dam keeper at that time was Ivery Newton, a very pleasant man who faithfully cared for his duties as dam keeper. He had a canoe and a small outboard motor that he used when necessary to go to Big River by water (over 30 miles). He would often stop in for Ted and my dad often gave him a ride to Big River with dad's pulp truck to get supplies.

I recall a conservation officer coming to the forks about 1951 with two beavers in his station wagon and asking my dad for suggestions on a good creek to put those beavers in since beavers were very scarce in the area at that time. Dad suggested Rat Creek (now called Taggart Creek), so I went with him; I was about 10 years old at the time. He let the beavers go in the creek; it must have worked because today we do not have any shortage of beavers, just water.

The checking station, which was situated just a few hundred yards from the forks near Cowan Dam, was used primarily through the 1960 and 70s during big game hunting season. The building was moved from Cowan Dam where the dam keeper had lived, I believe Jerry Ives either lived at the dam, or, was patrolman at the time, I'm not sure but he had some connections with that project.

Some of the people who ran the checking station during the big game season were Bruce McTaggart, Stan Brettle, and Henry Fabish.

We had a very enjoyable time doing our daily routine and trying to keep ahead of the bear, which was a common problem at campgrounds. On a number of occasions the bear would be going ahead of us popping the lids off the cans and pulling out the bags before we got there, on one occasion a bear had been shot at Zig Zag campground and Abe & I were called upon to bury it, the trouble was it had been dead for a number of days so you can imagine the job, but we survived it although it was touch and go at times.

Johnny Langford also helped Hank and I out when we had a very serious wolf problem in the mid 1960s. The wolves were killing farm cows and calves, so a horse was slaughtered and bait stations were set up to get rid of the problem and it worked.

Henry Toews was a real outdoorsman and had his accommodations on his truck. He came through our area quite often and assisted Hank & me with the wolf problems. He taught us how to set wolf bait stations in the winter on lakes and knew how to be selective in the animals that were causing the problems and not harming the smaller animals.

I am writing this history on behalf of Don Thiessen, Glenn Honig, Al Hrynkiw, Terry Breker and Lynda Reed who was kind and patient enough to do the typing. On behalf of Sask. Environment we say thanks to all who have contributed to bettering the lives of people in their area.

Milo Fire 2002.
Milo Fire 2002.

Water Bomber used for Big River fire (2002).
Water Bomber used for Big River fire, 2002.

Florence, Walter.
Back Row:
Florence and Walter.

Front Row:
Dorothy, Ash (holding Florence) Archibald, Gladys and Henry Parker, and Harry Lane.

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Author: Webmaster -
"Date Modified: March 23, 2024."

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