By the time Mike Coates reached the forested island in the middle of Centennial Lake, about a 90-minute drive west of Ottawa, clouds of smoke already billowed from a rapidly spreading fire.

On Sunday afternoon, Coates’ neighbour, Paul Sartori, knocked on his door to warn him of the blaze. Coates — who said he has no experience fighting fires — and Sartori called emergency services, grabbed two fire extinguishers and sped off in a sport boat towards the island. During his 18 years living on the north shore of Centennial Lake, Coates said he had never even heard of a forest fire nearby. Now, the 13-acre island a kilometre south of his home was burning.

“When we got there, we quickly realized it was beyond our meagre resources,” Coates said. “It had already started to climb up trees and become a real thing.”

As of Thursday, data from the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System shows 441 wildland fires are actively burning across the country. Of those, 236 are out of control. In Ontario, 56 wildland fires are active, 32 of which are out of control.

According to Natural Resources Canada, climate change is expected to result in more frequent fires in boreal forests. It is also expected to increase the frequency of hot, dry weather that makes wildland fires more likely to occur. According to the department, other climate change impacts that could increase the amount of dead wood on the ground could also affect how often forest fires occur.

Coates said the forest floor was covered with debris from windstorms earlier this year. After the fire ignited, the debris and forest brush quickly spread the fire. Within an hour, Coates said the entire 13-acre island was ablaze.

The 13-acre island on Centennial Lake caught fire on Sunday. Photo submitted by Mike Coates

“It started very small. When we arrived, there were two or three tall pine trees that had lit up,” Coates said. “And then, very quickly, it moved.”

Shayne McCool, a fire adviser for Ontario’s Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services, told Canada’s National Observer in an email that the Centennial Lake fire grew quickly in size because the area’s conditions posed a “high to extreme” fire hazard.

During his 18 years living on the north shore of Centennial Lake, Mike Coates said he had never even heard of a forest fire nearby. Until Sunday.

As Coates watched the island burn, he said, a strong wind carried the fire across the lake and onto the mainland, spreading to the south shore.

“I was surprised how quickly it moved, how quickly it jumped and how far it jumped,” Coates said. “(The fire) probably jumped 300 feet.”

That’s when he and Sartori took off. The pair headed out to warn the residents of a campground south of the island. They called emergency services again and drove the boat around the bay, warning anyone they could see, Coates said.

Firefighters from Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry arrived that evening with water bombers to fight the fire. Later that night, Coates drove to Toronto, where he has a condominium.

The Township of Greater Madawaska issued an evacuation order for the community south of the lake, including Black Mountain Estate, Little Bay Lane, Airds Lake Road and Snider’s Tent and Trailer Park. Coates’ home, which sits on the lake’s north shore, is not in an area evacuated for the fire.

At the time of publication, the evacuation order for the area south of the lake has been extended until Friday afternoon.

By Wednesday, the township posted an update to its website that the fire was “being held.” At its peak, the fire spread to an area of just less than 45 hectares.

McCool said at this time, there have not been any reports of lost homes or buildings. He added Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources is still investigating the cause of the fire.

According to Ontario’s latest data, the province has seen 180 wildland fires so far this year, already more than its 10-year average number of wildland fires.

Coates said he plans to return to Centennial Lake next week.

“I wasn’t that concerned… I had a lake separating me from it,” Coates said. “Although, if there had been a southerly wind instead of a northerly one, you just never know where the sparks will fly.”

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
June 9, 2023, 07:03 pm

This story has been updated to correct the direction of the wind at Centennial Lake on Sunday, which was a northerly wind. We regret the error.

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