Jane Lee had heard about the forest fires burning many kilometres away from her family cottage but hadn’t seen smoke or other signs of a blaze when she and other relatives gathered at the retreat in northeastern Ontario earlier this summer.
All appeared to be well when she and 11 family members left the property in mid-June, but a massive wildfire known as Parry Sound 33 was creeping closer.
Days later, while at her home in southern Ontario, 71-year-old Lee said she learned that a wildfire had reached the area where the family’s property — made up of several cabins and a lighthouse — sits on a small island. The blaze jumped to the area, consuming the structures and burning surrounding vegetation, she said.
“The buildings burned so completely that the steel roofs are laying flat on the rocks,” she said. “There is just nothing left.”
A family acquaintance in the Key River area, where the cottage is located, sent a photograph to Lee’s relatives showing what the fire left behind, she said, adding that the image has been hard to look at it.
“Knowing that it’s gone is just an horrible thought,” she said. “We are on an island, you know, I thought it was burning deep in the forest.”
Parry Sound 33 has been burning for more than three weeks and spans 110 square kilometres. It’s one of nearly 50 active forest fires across northeastern Ontario. On Thursday, Ontario’s ministry of natural resources said the massive blaze has been “held,” meaning it is one step closer to being brought under control.
The summer’s forest fires have triggered evacuation orders in some communities and waterways have been closed. As a result, Lee’s family hasn’t been able to return to the area to see the damage first-hand.
The island on which Lee’s family property stood was bought by her father in the early 1960s. The buildings had no running water and no electricity, said Lee, noting that the family and their visitors always brought flashlights, lamps and plenty of food with them when they visited.
“It is the place we go to get away from the hectic life,” said Lee, who lives on a farm near Guelph, Ont., and is worried about what she’ll find when she returns. “I am dreading turning the corner where we always saw our beautiful lighthouse and we thought ‘there we are at our little piece of heaven again’,”
Over the years, Lee said the family had accumulated several belongings that they considered valuable, including an ice box, a hand-cranked record player and numerous records.
“We have lost some treasures … things that had a lot of meaning to us,” said Lee. “I am devastated about all that and also about the area.”
Some of the first owners of the island called themselves the Sand Bay Hunt and Fish Club, said Lee, adding that their names were tacked to the wall of one of the cabins. The lighthouse on the island also stood for years and was renovated in 2016 by Lee’s brother over the course of five weeks.
“To lose it this year, after all his work, is a very sad part of this story,” she said.
At the moment, Lee said it is unclear whether the family will immediately rebuild the cottage compound, but she said she hopes future generations will still be able to enjoy the area.
“This island means so much to people who have been going there for decades that there is certainly a will to carry on,” she said. “If I had a lifetime ahead of me, I would certainly rebuild it.”