FIRE RANGERS WERE THE EYES of the forest. Their job was to find fire, report it, and put it out. But the early rangers faced major obstacles.
Fire Fighting Tools. If the fire was still small, the fire ranger’s crude tools – shovel, axe, hoe and canvas water pail – might be enough to put it out. Hand tools had almost no impact on large fires, but portable gas fire pumps, in wide use by 1920, were a big improvement.
Travel Time. When the fire moved too fast for one man to handle, the ranger had to dash back to base, report the fire, round up a fire crew, and get back to the fire site. No matter how he traveled – on foot, by canoe, on horseback, or even by rail car – precious time was lost.
• Rangers on rail patrol had it easier. They patrolled the right-of-way along either side of the track, looking for fires caused by sparks from steam locomotives. The chances of catching fire in the early stages were better, but the fire ranger still had to hustle to beat the fire – as we see in this story of a young ranger’s first fire, My First Season of Fire Ranging.
Communication. When telephone lines were built in the back country, rangers could report fire quickly – if a phone was located in the area. Or they could carry a portable phone, and tap into a telephone line.
IN SPITE OF THE IMPROVEMENTS in communication and technology, ground patrols were inadequate. Rangers covered only a fraction of Canada’s forests, prairies, and mountains. Most of the wilderness remained unmonitored and unprotected.
By the late 1920s major changes transformed the role of the fire ranger on ground patrol.
• Telephone lines led to a new source of detection – public reporting of forest fires.
• Permanent lookout and tower systems were built and staffed throughout the fire season.
• The success of experimental aircraft patrols proved that hundreds of miles of wilderness could be monitored in a short time.
Gradually ground patrols were phased out in many parts of Canada. The role of the fire ranger changed from patrolman to specialized fire fighter.