The High Falls Lake Fire
A description of the aftermath of the August 2016 forest fire on the northwestern shore of High Falls Lake in Algonquin Park
On or about 2016 August 08, a fire broke out on the northwestern shore of High Falls Lake in eastern Algonquin Park. A travel ban in the area was quickly imposed. As the forest was extremely dry, the fire spread very quickly, reaching a size of about 48 hectares several days later. Through the actions of water bombers and helicopters, six fire crews on the ground and finally rain, the fire was essentially under control about a week after it started, but it was not declared officially out until September 01.
Bob and Diana visited the fire site two days after the travel ban was lifted. Bob visited solo four days later. Both Bob and Diana returned about a week after that; that is, as soon as the fire was declared officially out. This was the first day that we could explore the fire site on the ground rather than from the water. Photos from our visits to the fire site are reproduced below. It is our intent to periodically revisit the site to document its regeneration and to update this page.
It's interesting that there was a small fire in the same general area the previous fall, though it was much less extensive.
2016 August 18 - Our First Visit
Our first visit to the fire site on High Falls Lake was on August 18th and it appeared that to all intents and purposes the fire was out. Fire crews were still there mopping up, so we did not go on shore in the burned area and all our observations were made from the lake. It seems that the publicly reported status of the fire hadn't been keeping up with the actual conditions. On the 17th it was still officially 'being held', but on the 18th that was updated to 'under control'
We were relieved to see that the 48 hectare extent of the fire was not a solid burn (nor did it crown), at least along the shore. It looked very patchy, with burned areas and still green areas adjacent to each other, and it seemed to have spread mainly along the ground.
The place where the fire appears to have started (to our un-expert eyes) is a spot that is sometimes used as a campsite, though to the best of our knowledge (and according to our collection of APP canoe route maps stretching back — with some gaps — for 40 years), there have never been any official campsites on that side of the lake. However, our Chrismar Adventure Map for the area (1999) does show a campsite on that shore (site of the 2015 fall fire but largely untouched by the 2016 fire).
We started from the Brigham Lake access point and travelled via Opalescent Lake and Ooze Lake to High Falls Lake, then returned along the Barron River. We observed no damage to any of the portages along our route. There was a fire crew camped on, though not blocking, the first portage out of High Falls Lake down the Barron River. It was a bit of a surprise to come across a cluster of tents in the bush there — especially considering the rocky nature of the ground — with the fire crew sitting around relaxing after a hard day's work.
That shore of the lake is mostly rock with very little soil. Lichens and moss have been colonizing it — with periodic disruptions, no doubt — since High Falls Lake was part of a glacial outwash channel. This area was probably stripped by logging over 100 years ago. Since then, smaller plants have moved in and trees have grown with roots along the surface or into cracks in the rock. There were dead pine needles on the ground and some dead trees, which allowed the fire to spread easily. It would not be a surprise if some of the apparently surviving trees die due to root damage since all the roots are very shallow.
Forest fires due to lightning etc., are a natural process in forest regeneration and no doubt have been occurring here for millennia. However this one was apparently caused by people camping illegally and being careless with fire in what were clearly dangerous conditions. But one has to question why a fire ban was not already in place.
This area is a designated Nature Reserve Zone that (according to the Park map) Protects representative examples of geological features and biological communities. Thus we expect that it will be left to regenerate naturally.
The bush here is quite sparse and — at least prior to the fire — relatively easy to bushwhack through, so we were hoping to be able to investigate in from the shore eventually.
More photos from our visit to High Falls Lake on August 18 may be found in our photo gallery: High Falls Lake Fire — 2016 August 18.
2016 August 22 - Moving Day
Bob returned to High Falls Lake on August 22nd to check on progress and attempt to match an old photo. If the fire crews had left, he would have explored the fire site on the ground. However, the fire crews were still there. But it was clearly moving day for the remaining three crews. Most (if not all) of the camps and gear were being removed by helicopter. The helicopter was going back and forth all day, with load after load.
Bob went over and talked to them and learned a bunch of stuff he had been wondering about:
- A fire crew consists of four people. Thus at its peak, there were 24 people on the ground working on this fire. By observation, quite a few of them were women.
- Each crew member has their own two person tent. (Bob didn't ask what they used for sleeping pads, but after subsequently examining one of their campsites, he should have.) There are also communal tents but Bob's not sure if it's one per crew or not. The set up on High Falls Lake also had some huge tarp set ups but this is not the norm. It was in response to the heavy rain.
- They had solid air support for the first few days of this fire.
- The fire burned 48 hectares (about 120 acres). It takes about three hours to walk the perimeter of the burn. They didn't think the fire had crossed any trails but they were not familiar with the Cheater Trail. They said that the fire burned 'to the hill top'. (For some — but not all — of its length, the Cheater Trail is beyond the hill top. However, the fire not reaching the Cheater Trail is consistent with the trail having reopened and that a couple of interior rangers were doing a maintenance run on the Cheater Trail when we visited four days earlier.)
- The fire appears to have started at one of the campsites on the west side of the lake. (There are no official campsites on the west side of the lake, nor have there ever been, as far as we know.) They did not think that the party responsible had been identified.
- They can pump water about two thousand feet into the bush. (about six hose lengths). (There may be some mental arithmetic issues with this fact so it should be treated with caution.)
- When a team is dropped into a new fire, they need to fight their way in, establish a camp and be self sufficient for 24 hours.
- Except in exceptional circumstances, they do not fight a fire at night.
- Bob noted that some of their camps were were on burned areas. Yes and at one stage the fire was moving back towards their camp.
- For this fire they established five helipads — three on the shore of High Falls Lake and two in the bush back from the lake. Of the latter, one of these was based on a natural clearing whereas the other was opened up with chain saws.
- They were scaling back to one fire crew and the fire would be monitored for a few days. They need to let it dry out and then check for fresh smoke.
- They are monitoring the area with infrared scanners. They do not use hand held monitors. Rather it is all done by helicopter. The scanning is done before the sun is up. Hot spots are located and a ground crew is sent in to check it out.
- Bob asked if he could go into the fire zone on foot. Since, officially it was still an active fire, it was agreed that he should stick to his canoe.
- One of the crews at this fire was the same crew that had handled the Deep River fire from two days before this one.
- They thought that the High Falls area was a very nice area compared to some of their fire sites. They got the opportunity to check out the falls and explore a bit down river.
More photos from Bob's visit to High Falls Lake on August 22 may be found in our photo gallery: High Falls Lake Fire — 2016 August 22.
2016 September 02 - The Fire is Officially Out
The High Falls Lake fire was declared out on September 1st. Diana and Bob went in on September 2nd to check out the interior. Prior to this visit, Bob had the silly notion that he would return later in the fall and walk the perimeter of the fire so as to map out its extent. On the basis of Friday's forays into the burned areas, he decided that he's just not that ambitious; it's really rough going in there. We will however return later this fall after the scorched trees have lost their needles.
More photos from our visit to High Falls Lake on September 02 may be found in our photo gallery: High Falls Lake Fire — 2016 September 02.
2016 September 30
In late September, Bob and Diana walked in to the water slide area; we noticed no signs of the fire along the High Falls Cheater Trail.
2016 October 05
We returned to High Falls Lake in early October. The burned area looked much the same as it did a month previous. We had expected a much greater needle fall. We will check again in the spring.
- 2015 Fall
- A small fire occurred along the shore of High Falls Lake. This fire was unrelated to the 2016 fire except that it too started at an unofficial campsite on the northwestern shore of High Falls Lake
- on or about 2016 Aug 08
- A fire broke out at the site of an unofficial campsite along the northwestern shore of High Falls Lake
- 2017 Aug 09
- Access to the following locations in eastern Algonquin Park was closed: Brigham Lake, The Cascades, Cork Lake, High Falls Lake, Length Lake, Ooze Lake, Opalescent Lake, Marie Lake, access to the High Falls area via the Eastern Pines Backpacking Trail, and the Cheater Trail to High Falls. Access to the water slide via Stratton Lake was not closed.
- 2016 Aug 10
- Fire had grown to 25 hectares
- 2016 Aug 11, 7:00pm
- Fire ban was imposed throughout Algonquin Park. (Note that fire bans had been imposed on most surrounding municipalities substantially before this.)
- 2016 Aug 12 and through weekend
- 2016 Aug 14
- At 11:30am, the fire ban in Algonquin Park was lifted.
"Algonquin Park 20, located near High Falls Lake is not under control at 48 hectares (~119 acres). The 6 crews committed to this fire are working to contain it. This fire has received significant precipitation over the last few days which has allowed our fire crews to make good progress on the perimeter establishing control lines."
"As of August 14, 2016, Algonquin Park has had 21 fires during 2016 (20 declared 'out' and one 'active fire'). The total land area burnt by all fires is 53.3 hectares (~132 acres). Twelve of these fires were human-caused and 8 were caused by lightning (and one is yet to be determined)."
- 2016 Aug 16
- Closed locations in eastern Algonquin Park were reopened
- 2016 Aug 24
- "Algonquin Park 20, located near High Falls Lake is under control at 48 hectares. An aerial infrared scan of the fire on the morning of August 23 showed no hot spots. Another infrared scan will be conducted on the fire this week."
- 2016 Aug 27
- "Algonquin Park 20, located near High Falls Lake is under control at 48 hectares. An aerial infrared scan of the fire on the morning of August 26 showed no hot spots."
- 2016 Sept 01
- "Algonquin Park 20, located near High Falls Lake has now been declared out. It reached a maximum size of 48 hectares."