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Notre Dame Bay Region ~ Fogo / Twillingate District

Forest Fires on Fogo Island

Robert J. Mednis, Department of Geography
Memorial University of Newfoundland

Newfoundland Quarterly Summer Issue, 1978

Transcribed from the "Newfoundland Quarterly", Vol. LXXIV, No. 2 by Tammy Hammond, there may be errors.


Fogo Island, located near the northeast coast of the Island of Newfoundland, is approximately 290 square kilometres (110 square miles) large. It has been frequented by European explorers and fisherman since the beginning of the 16th century, and settled by fishermen since the end of the 17th century.

The location of the island in the high middle latitudes places it within the marine-modified subarctic environment, climatically and pedologically capable of supporting a well-developed northern coniferous forest. However, the present vegetation consists of a patchy pattern of three major ecologically and physiognomically distinctive types: tundra-like barrens, bogs, and poor, degraded forests dominated by balsam fir (Abies balsamea) and black spruce (Picea marina). The major reason for their present condition is the human influence, especially forest fires.

Both presumptive and direct evidences indicate that vegetation fires have occurred on Fogo Island rather frequently for hundreds if not thousands of years. Among the presumptive evidences are the following: (a) the highly flammable nature of the vegetation, combined with the occurrence of weather conditions promoting ignition of fuel and propagation of fires; (b) the frequenting of the island by Indians and Europeans before settlement; the history of settlement by the white man; and (d) the toponymy of the island and its vicinity. Direct evidences pointing to the occurrence of vegetation fires include: (a) existence of partly charred wood and other vegetative material; (b) charcoal imbedded in humus and peat; and (c.) mention of fires in documents, reports and other written material, as well as oral reports of eyewitnesses.

There are no evidences that Beothuk Indians had permanent settlements on any of the islands in Notre Dame Bay. They did, however, to to them regularly in summer to fish and to gather birds and their eggs (Fraser, 1968). The great auk (Pinguinus impennis) of the Funk Islands was widely harvested by the Indians and later by the Europeans, bringing this species to extinction. Since the aboriginal man almost never bothered to extinguish his fires (Lutz, 1960), forest fires caused by him on Fogo are quite probable. Captain Cartwright, who visited Fogo Island area on several occasions, notes in his diary that on July 11, 1770 he has seen two Indian wigwams, with a fire in each, "on a small island to the east of Little Coal All Island," located approximately forty-three kilometres (twenty-seven miles) southwest of Fogo Island. In another place in his diary he notes: "I met with wigwams upon several of these islands (in Notre Dame Bay) in which fires were burning, yet I never saw an Indian" (as quoted by Townsend, 1911).

The cultural impact of Europeans probably did not start until the end of the 16th century when the English fisherman arrived. Even though the Portugeuese and the Spaniards had long fished Newfoundland waters, they pickled their fish aboard their vessels before taking them to Europe, whereas the English and the French dried their catches on stages built from local material in various parts scattered along the shore (Innis, 1940). Trees were cut for staging, flakes, seasonal shelters known as tilts, and fuel. Great quantities of bark were peeled or "rinded" from living trees to spread over the dry fish piles for protection from the weather (Jukes, 1842), leaving numerous trees to die and to create an easily flammable fuel. As early as August 17, 1622, Captain Edward Wynne wrote from the English settlement of Ferryland, located approximately 80 km (50 miles) south of St. John's, that "there hath been rinded this year not so few as 50,000 trees" (as quoted by prowse, 1895). Another report from the same area described a forest fire which burned for a week (Prowse, 1895). Daniel Powell wrote on July 22, 1622, that "the woods along the coasts are so spoyled by the fishermen that it is a great pity to behold the, and without redresse undoubtedly will be ruine of this good land . . . for (the fishermen) wastefully barke, fell and leave more wood behind them to rot than they use about their stages although they employ a world of wood upon them" (as quoted by Prowse, 1895). Cartwright reports similiar conditions in 1770 (Townsend, 1911) so does Cormack in 1822, Jukes in 1842, and the Newfoundland Royal Commission in 1933, among others.

Geologists Murray and Howley related the evidences of "great conflagrations ... at nearly every part (of Newfoundland) which may have originated long before the days of Sebastian Cabot". They also noted that visits to forests by fishermen "frequently if not invariably, terminate by setting fire to the woods, and destroying more or less valuable timber" (Murray and Howley, 1881). Laws prohibiting the "setting for fire to the woods or rinding of trees" were issued since 1615, but the practice, nevertheless, continued. The temporary nature of costal "fishing rooms" appears to be an important factor contributing to the attitude of irresponsibility and the carelessness in exploitation of forests even to the present days. The pickling of wild berries has been practised probably since the man stepped ashore. Blueberries (Vaccinium spp.), bake-apple berries or cloudberries (Rubus chaamaemorus), partridgeberries of mountain cranberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), marshberries or cranberries (Vaccinium oxycocco) are picked in great quantities even nowadays, and berry-pickers are thought to cause at least one-half of the vegetation fires (Newfoundland Forest Protection Association, 1967).

It was not uncommon for the ocean fishermen to go ashore in an uninabited place and light a fire for boiling a cup of tea or to escxape from mosquitoes while resting ashore. Frequently such fires were left unextingushed and thus causing forest fires near the shore (Jukes, 1842; Townsend, 1911) Fisheman fishing for trout in inland ponds are known to do the same, thus causing forest fires in the interior of the island.

The toponymy of fogo Island area also reflects the existence of forest fires. The name "Fogo" means "fire" in Portuguese, and the oldest preserved map with the name of Fogo Island (y:do fogo) is a map of the Atlantic drawn by Pedro Reinel and his son Jorge for Lopo Homem's Atlas (known also as the Miller's Atlas) on or before 1519. The French name "Isles de Feu" (Alfonse, 1544) is probably a translation from the Portuguese. The presently forest-clad promontory named "burnt Point" and the hills named "Burnt Heads" in the southern part of the island (see map) also point to former fires. There are several "Burnt Islands", "Burnt Bays" and "Burnt Lakes", "Burnt Tickle", a "Burnt Arm", and a "Burnt Cove" in the general area of Fogo Island. The "Coal-All Island" and "Cinder Island" are other examples of place names which stand in contrast to the several "Woody Islands", "Green Islands", "Spruce Islands", a "Pine Island", and a "Birchy Bay" nearby (Mednis, 1976).

The oldest written report on forest fires on fogo Island dates from August 30, 1839 when near Herring Neck, located approximately twenty-two kilometres (fourteen miles) west of the island. "the air was thick with smoke proceeding from fires which were said to be raging in the woods near Seldom-come-by Harbour (southern part of Fogo Island) (Jukes 1842). The Public Ledger", a newspaper in St John's reports the following news in its September 3, 1867 issue:

Letter from Fogo on 22nd, August says fires there too -- Woods on fire for over 3 weeks. Thought would reach houses. More that 30 fires seen from hill. More in Hare Bay. Smoke often dense. Heavy rains lately. Much wood destroyed and fire 6-8' into ground. No rain for over 2 months.
Probably the greatest of the reported fires occurred in July 1875. "The Courier" of July 31, 1875 reports:
Fogo Island is on fire in several places, particularly near Seldom Come By, Stag Hr., etc. There is also fire on Brimstone Head, Black Cove, Fogo which has been burning for the past three weeks and cannot be put out . . . At this time while writing (at Fogo) the smoke is so dense that objects cannot be seen 100 yeards off. although it is only 4:00 o'clock p.m. . . . Two men arrived by boat from Island Hr., 7 miles off reporting a number of houses burnt. This fire is reported to cover an area of 4 to 5 miles and nothing can stop it unless copious rain. it is approaching Hare Bay rapidly and is reported as coming out in Shoal Bay between Joe Batts Arm and Fogo. It is also reported that the fire originated in Little Seldom come by or Cobbs Cove, where a woman named Rebecca Squires was making salmon in an old tilt which she carelessly left fire.

"A terrible conflagration at Fogo Island . . . (and) the whole of (its) interior to be in flame" was reported on July 30, 1896 (Evening Herald, 1896). The consequences of these fire are still evident in the fact that no trees older than approximately one hundred years are found on Fogo Island today.

During a drought or protracted periods of dryness the vegetation becomes highly flammable, the ignition temperatures are low, and burning of extensive area is possible. The extent and the severeness of the above mentioned calamitous fires of July 1875 can largely be attributed to hot and dry weather of June and July of that years. During the two months the averate temperatures were 15.6oC (61oF) and 18.3oC (65oF) respectively, as compared with the normals of 10oC (50oF) and 15oC (59oF); while precipitation amounted to only 24 mm (0.95 in.) and 23 mm (0.90 in.) respectively, as contrasted to the normals of 64 mm (2.52 in.) and 74 mm (2.89 in.)

Not all of the fires are resulting for cultural causes. Lightning is also known to have started fires in boreal forests, including Newfoundland. Recently their numbers in the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador has varied from low of three in 1965 to a high of forty-six in 1964 (Newfoundland Fire Protection Association), 1967). Considering the size of Fogo Island, chances for lightning caused fires however are rather small. Furthermore, the geographical setting of the island in respect to water and land mass distribution practically eliminate the possibility that a fire may spred to it from the Island of Newfoundland or that the overwhelming majority of Fogo Island fires in the past, when records were scarce and fragmentary, were caused my man. It is confirmed by the more complete recent data which attribute fires almost entirely to cultural causes, i.e to anthropic origin (Newfoundland Fire Protection Association, 1967). In combination with indiscriminate and careless cutting, they have greatly reduced the quantity and the quality of the greatest natural resource of the island, the forest. They also have a distinct influence on the nature and distribution of other vegetation types.

References Cited:
Alfonse, J. (Jehan Allefonse). 1544. Cosmographe. MS francis 676 in Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris France.
Cormack, W.E. 1873. Narrative of a journey across the Island of Newfoundland. St. John's: Morning Chronicle Print 99 pp.
The Courier. July 31, 1875
Evening Herald, July 30, 1896
Fraser, A.M. Provincial Archivist and Curator of Newfoundland Museum, St. John's, 1968. Personal communication.
Innis, H.A. 1940. The cod fisheries. New Haven: Yale University Press. 520 pp.
Jukes, J.B 1842. Excursions in and about Newfoundland during the years 1839 and 1840. London: Vol. I, 319 pp., Vol. II 354 pp.
Lutz, H. J. 1960. Fire as an ecological factor in the boreal forest of Alaska. J. Forestry, 58:454-460
Mednis, R. J. 1976. Toponymy as a tool in biogegeography: an example from Newfoundland: Canadian Field-Naturalist, 90:501-502
Murray, A., and Howley, J. P. 1881. Report of the geological survey of Newfoundland for 1864-1880. London: Stanford.
Newfoundland Forest Protection Association. 1967. Annual report. 78 pp
Newfoundland Royal Commission. 1833. Newfoundland Royal commisiion Report 1933. London: H.M. Stationery Office. 283 pp.
Prowse, D. W. 1895. A history of Newfoundland from the English colonial, and foreign records. London: Macmillan and Co. 742 pp.
Public Ledger. September 3, 1867.
Townsend, C. W. 1911. Captain Cartwright and his Labrador Journal. Boston: Dana Estes & co. 385 pp.


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Fogo / Twillingate District