The last time Kasey DeMings saw his home was the day the fire reached Carleton Village, about a 15-minute drive from Shelburne, NS
DeMings, a 10-year-old fisherman, had just joined the Gunning Cove Volunteer Fire Department a few days earlier. That morning he stood at the head of his driveway as the fire crept closer.
But his crew was needed elsewhere, so DeMings turned and went to save someone else’s house.
“It was emotional, but the adrenaline was so high that I kind of blocked it out,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t worry about my house. I had to try to save what we could save.”
In the end, DeMings, along with his wife and two young daughters, lost their house and garage, and the family cottage.
All the lobster traps, halibut tackle, and peg nets stored in the yard near their home also burned down — uninsured gear that DeMings estimates was worth $250,000.
“I think we were hoping that DNR and the water bombers would stop it. And they just couldn’t, it was just too big.”
Huge fire response
The Barrington Lake fire started May 27 in rural Shelburne County and raged out of control for days. By the time the province announced the fire was “under control,” it had grown to about 140 square miles — making it the largest ever in Nova Scotia.
Officials said the fire destroyed about 60 homes and another 90 buildings such as outhouses and sheds.
It also drove 6,700 people from their homes, some for as long as two weeks.
As many as 150 firefighters from the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables and many volunteer fire departments fought the fire using helicopters, planes and water bombers.
‘It felt like driving through hell’
DeMings had already received some fire training from his work as a fisherman and went to the Gunning Cove Fire Department the same weekend when the Barrington Lake fire started.
He joined that day and received basic training on the department’s three fire trucks.
Then it went to the fire zone, loading giant cube-shaped water tanks into the back of pickup trucks and using pumps borrowed from the Coast Guard to wet as many homes as possible.
“I really want people to know that it was the volunteer firefighters who saved a lot,” he said.
“They fought until they could fight no more.”
The Department of Natural Resources and Renewables takes the lead in fighting wildfires and has 112 employees dedicated to the task during the wildfire season. It can also call on other trained personnel in the department to have a total of about 300 personnel fighting fires across the province.
However, in places like Shelburne County, 911 goes first to volunteer firefighters, so they are usually the first on the scene before the department gets involved.
Eric Jeffery is also a fisherman and one of 20 volunteer firefighters at Gunning Cove. He has been a firefighter in various departments for years, but had never seen such a fire.
“It felt like driving through hell,” he said of one particularly bad night. “It was just fire on both sides of the road as far as you could see.”
“We worked very, very hard,” he said. “I’ve started wildfires before, but normally you just ship water to DNR, drop it in their tank and off you go. But this time we were the front line.”
Jeffery said most members of his chapter were fighting to save their own homes or their neighbors, so they went to great lengths.
“They wanted to protect it, but they knew they had to do it safely,” he said. “When the fire is all around, you can’t put yourself in a situation where you get hurt.”
Preserve precious memories
Kasey DeMings knew that the Gunning Cove Department had to make decisions about which homes should be prioritized for water spraying. He also knew that his house was not one of them, because it was on the ocean, away from the main road.
“You could get stuck here pretty quickly,” he said. “That was not something worth risking your life for.”
Eventually, the smoke grew so thick that it forced the firefighters out of Gunning Cove, but DeMings knew his house was still standing.
Before entering the fire zone again the next morning, his six-year-old asked him to take the necklace her aunt had given her. So he went to his house and got it, along with a few other items. They were the last things he could do.
“Even that morning I didn’t believe the fire would come down here,” he said.
DeMings plans to rebuild in the same place. His house was insured, his fishing gear was not. But other anglers have come forward to offer traps, rope and buoys.
He takes comfort in the fact that his department has saved more homes in the community than have been lost. He hopes that the small volunteer departments will receive support to replace their old and damaged items.
“There’s been a lot of homes lost and a lot of stuff lost, and just loss in general,” he said. “But we’ll get through it as long as we stick together as a community. I think that’s the most important thing right now. We’ll get through it one way or another.”