Cumberland County’s four fire towers are closed as of the end of this season as the province relies on aerial patrols and calls from the public using cell phones. John Chouinard is the last man to work in the tower on Sugarloaf Mountain and at the beginning of this interview, he is baffled as to why I want to interview him.
“To me, there’s nothing there,” he says. “I just go up, go to work, look around and see things, make sure there is no fire, watch for smoke.”
Working in a fire tower six days a week, eight hours a day? For 16 years? There has to an interesting story here – as they say, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
John lives in Millvale with his wife, Vonetta. Born and raised in Quebec, he joined the military, working in communications, and came to Nova Scotia in 1976 when he was posted to Debert, ending his career working at Folly with NATO. After retiring in the spring of 1990, he worked as a commissionaire then at the fish hatchery in Millvale. In 1996, the man who was working at the fire tower on Sugarloaf Mountain was leaving so he applied, knowing the skills he picked up in the Forces, like map-reading, would help with the job.
The Sugarloaf tower is one of the shortest, only 65 feet high. “That was the good thing about it,” John laughs.
From the tower he can see the island; he watched the last span of Confederation Bridge being installed. “That’s more than 25 miles away but it was a beautiful day,” he remembers.
It reveals the range he is responsible for: as far as he can see in any direction.
“When I see the smoke, I have to figure out where it is,” says John. “I have a big map in the middle of the tower which I point towards the smoke. Then I have so many degrees away from me and I have to decide which space it goes from. It’s educated guessing. Otherwise, to be exact, that’s why we have the other tower in Springhill. We can ask the other guy. Because of the way the mountain is, sometimes he can see what I cannot and the other way around.”
But it’s hard to judge distances and exact locations so how does John pinpoint the source of smoke in an area full of trees and hills?
“We see the smoke,” he says then picks an envelope off the desk in the office and indicates that this represents the mountain. “Now this is the hill and I’m over here. On this side of the hill, when I see the smoke, if it’s all green, the smoke will be coming from here. But if it’s on the other side of the mountain, you can only see half of the smoke. Then you have to figure out where it’s at. Is it one mile past the top of the ridge, is it two miles? It’s mostly instinct than anything else. After awhile you get to know your land and everything else. You figure it out. It’s the same as your own home. If someone moves something in your yard, you know it’s been moved because you’re so used to looking out and saying, ‘That machine used to be there. How come it’s not there?’ It’s the same thing with fire. ”
Did he ever prevent a forest fire?
“Twice,” John says. “One in Shinimicas. It was early in the morning. No one knew about it. The people who owned the land were in Amherst. The other one was by my place. It was a funny one. I was looking at it and thinking it doesn’t make sense. Then all of a sudden, what is supposed to be green turned white. But the smoke didn’t get above the ridge so I wasn’t sure. I called it in. I told them I was sending them in but I wasn’t sure. It was just a precaution. But I was right; the fire was just starting.”
He explains that the difference between the smoke of burning brush and the smoke of an actual fire is the colour.
“Real fire, the smoke will be white. You have a big pile of brush, it starts black then turns white but as soon as it’s really burning, you don’t get all the smoke. It goes down.”
This is why he watches so carefully; by the time he gets the map table moved and “I take my bearing, all of a sudden the smoke will go down. If it comes back up, that’s when you really have to know your bearings.”
When I ask if he had problems with bats or birds in the tower, he lights up, sits forward in his chair, becomes animated
“Mating time! You see these little hawks, they come around, they fly up and then they – ” he smacks his hands together quickly – “and fly away. It’s so beautiful. Those little hawks, they stand on the cables there when they’re first learning to fly and the mother comes around and swoops over them. Ah, it’s so beautiful. Then there are the hummingbirds, they come in the spring and the fall. I don’t know, at my place we have hundreds of hummingbirds and before they leave in the fall, they come up to the tower, look in the window, don’t ask me why, they look in the window and then they go – ssshhhhzzz – and you can see them fly until they disappear. It’s like they come to say good-bye.”
The hummingbirds won’t find John in the tower when they return next spring. His last day was September 28.
“I enjoyed this job,” John says. “I couldn’t ask for a better job. I’m in my seventies now. It’s so peaceful. You look around, in the springtime, the leaves are not there then all of a sudden, everything changes. Green everywhere. In the fall, it’s the other way around. The blueberry fields go different colours. They turn dark red. Ah, the peace and quiet. But it’s over now. I’m going to miss it.”