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Big Island Marsh fires under investigation

Big Island marsh fire a few years ago, photographed by Terry Sprague.

Big Island marsh fire a few years ago, photographed by Terry Sprague.

Marsh fires believed to be intentionally set are now officially under investigation by the Prince Edward County OPP detachment and the County Fire Department.

“There have been several marsh fires at Big Island in recent years,” said Anthony Mann, Community Services Officer with the PEC OPP, noting the fires on April 11, 2015 and on March 23, 2012 are the current focus. “Such a large fire presents risk to public safety and the safety of first responders.”

Quinte Conservation, Bay of Quinte Remedial Action Plan photo of work completed and under way at the Big Island Marsh. The lake has been officially named Lake Sprague, in honour of Spragues' work over the years.

Quinte Conservation, Bay of Quinte Remedial Action Plan photo of work completed and under way at the Big Island Marsh. The lake has been officially named Lake Sprague, in honour of naturalist Terry Spragues’ work over the years.

Prince Edward County Fire Chief Scott Manlow agreed, noting the cost to taxpayers is also concerning and tallied more than $22,000 for the blaze earlier this month.

There were 35 firefighters and eight trucks on the scene April 11 for more than 12 hours battling the marsh fire blaze burning east of the Big Island causeway connecting County Road 15 to the island. Firefighters remained a further four or five hours watching hot spots and for clean up.

Manlow said high winds could easily have caused the fire to jump the marsh and spread to fields and properties where there are several homes.

“The wind was horrific. The flames, at times were 30 feet into the air. The firefighters are at risk staying ahead of the fire. It’s taxing on them,” said Manlow. “Many of the homeowners know to keep their properties’ grass cut down along the edge of the marsh to discourage fire from spreading onto their property, but the wind can make that difficult.”
There had been rain the day before the fire and the frozen ground allowed firefighters to access hotspots burning in unpredictable wind. Crews were stationed at the marsh throughout the night and into the next day.

The ongoing marsh restoration project’s new dug channels and ponds also helped stop the fire from spreading. The Bay of Quinte Remedial Action Plan,  Quinte Conservation and Prince Edward County Stewardship Council began a partnership in 2012 to improve wetland habitat at the Big Island marsh.

The County’s firefighters have experience extinguishing marsh fires as they are becoming a regular occurrence.

Conservationist Terry Sprague has lived on Big Island all his life and is glad to hear there will be an investigation into “the annual bizarre 50-year-old ceremony of setting the marsh on fire.”

He believes it’s time out-of-control arsonists were caught and dealt with.

“They work under the premise that the blackened waste, choking smoke, threatened wildlife, burned fences and threat to properties somehow revitalizes the marsh,” said Sprague. “If they believe this nonsense, then why is this bizarre ceremony done at midnight on one of the windiest nights of the year?  The County’s volunteer firefighters have better things to do than fight deliberately set fires in the darkness of night.”

Another theory is the fires are set to redue the blackbird population as it is nesting so there will be fewer birds to eat the summer’s corn crops.

But Sprague, a naturalist in the County for the past 40 years, said the premise is nonsense.

“Cattail marshes are only one type of habitat that blackbirds nest in but they nest in bushes and hay fields too. Once the marsh greens up, they carry on with nesting. Where do people come up with these ridiculous ideas? It’s like taking a handful of sand from the dunes at Sandbanks, and saying you have made an impact on the overall amount!”

Sprague notes he almost caught a culprit in action.

“I almost caught one fellow once, but he peeled rubber and sped toward Demorestville, faster than I could keep up. That was the time I argued with the Call Centre and tried to explain to her what I meant by a “causeway”. She replied, “I’m sorry, Sir, but I am not familiar with your County terms.”

The OPP is asking anyone with information regarding these fires to contact the Prince Edward County OPP at 1-888-310-1122 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477).

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  1. K. says:

    I wonder if people actually realize that the fire affects more then just the grass and plants, its destroying an ecosystem and killing animals.

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