Mark Clairmont | MuskokaTODAY.com
GRAVENHURST — Northern college and university students took a beating from the Ford government this spring.
After the province refused to prop up failing Laurentian University, it had to gut much of its curriculum including many environmental science and biology courses.
A fate daresay better than the Ontario Fire College (OFC), which faces a fire sale after recently closing — its last day March 31.
Both schools opened about the same time; in Gravenhurst in 1957 and in Sudbury three years later.
While Georgian College has successfully trained carpenters, nurses and PSWs since 1977 in Bracebridge, Huntsville and Bracebridge had fewer years of study through Nipissing and Waterloo universities in just the past decade.
But it’s the loss of 64 years of firefighter and officer training at the OFC that has a “very sad” Judy Humphries fired up and anticipating a fire sale of the 90 acres on Lake Muskoka.
Humphries was asked to start the library program at the college following a teaching career that concluded at the Gravenhurst High School.
For 20 years she catalogued tons of paper resource materials before digital data, stacking mounds of manuals and reports from modern firefighting practices on shelves and filling filing cabinets with vital life-saving curriculum from global fire services.
Most of that research she says has since thankfully gone to the University of Toronto for preservation as the province’s First Marshal Jon Peg moves to dozens more regional training centres closer to fire departments.
Her understanding is the the massive black monument to fallen firefighters will remain onsite.
And she hopes Scott’s Hall will be saved in any new development. It was named after Fire Marshal W.J. Scott who opened the OFC.
She believes it’s a provincial heritage site, but is still trying to confirm that. Meanwhile Gravenhurst’s Heritage Committee is working to ensure it receives at least local historical status.
And while Humphries — the town’s archivist — questions the change from one of the province’s primary training venues (large cities have their own), she also mostly laments the loss of some valuable history she believes was lost or destroyed in the move. That includes filing cabinets filled with photographic evidence of decades of training and significant history.
Former Gravenhurst fire chief Lorne McNeice’s day job was as the college’s mechanical officer manager — overseeing everything from the small fleet of more than a half dozen pumpers and fire trucks (including the aerial ladder the college got rid of years ago) and all the breathing apparatus.
“All the stuff you have in a regular fire department,” he said on the weekend.
McNeice was also the college photographer, whose images gave life to thousands of masked men and women cloaked in bunker gear.
Even he doesn’t know what happened to all his photos, but wishes he did.
And on closing the college?
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” he told MuskokaTODAY.com.
“It’s a whole new ball game,” said McNeice, himself a graduate of the OFC in the 1980s.
After joining the Gravenhurst Fire Department in 1972, he became chief in 1982.
Frequently he’d get called at the college — or in later years be paged — to race in to town to fight a fire or free drivers who hit a rock cut.
At nights he would oversee training of new volunteers and passing along his college training to raw recruits.
But after seeing the inside of almost every building in town, for fires or inspections — and much worse — he said he’d “had enough.”
He retired in 2012 after 40 years of distinguished service with the GFD in which he brought the local brigade up to speed on the latest firefighting techniques and procedures. Many of his firefighters themselves went on to become part-time course instructors and were still there at its end.
Instructors and firefighters from across the province were familiar faces around Gravenhurst, while staying at the college for weeks and contributing to the community’s economy. Dozens of them often being seen dining out on chicken wing nights at local pubs.
From its official opening in 1958 the OFC was at the epicentre of emerging fire services that evolved from stringing hoses for structure fires to using the Jaws of Life in auto extraction and the chemical retardation at choking tire fires.
The first class at the OFC was 1957, a study of ‘radiation hazards in a nuclear world’ — only a dozen years after atomic bombs dropped on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the Second World War.
A world away from Gravenhurst, yet close enough to home for a province that had just lived through the first decade of the Cold War.
To most Muskokans who’ve sailed past the college in antique boats or aboard the Segwun or Wenonah II ships, it’s the college’s iconic twin training towers on the shoreline that are most most identifiable tucked in the bay next to the old Muskoka Centre.
Belching black smoke from hay bales lit inside — and seen from miles around — meant the volunteer men and women staying the course from across Ontario were rehearsing the life-saving skills they prayed they’d never use.
Hours crawling around inside the concrete bunkers — heavy air packs weighing down burdened backs — afforded first responders the prospect of too likely first-hand experience in the dark, sick, thick of a smoky building seeking to rescue.
Sadly the OFC’s closing is but another chapter for authors of town books like Andrea Baston on this site and the nearby Muskoka Centre property expected to be sold this summer.
Humphries has done her usual bang-up job in the virtual historical talk she gave this week hosted by Gravenhurst Public Library’s chief librarian Julia Reinhart.
Humphries provided context to the OFC property and adjacent lands that once housed some of Canada’s earliest tuberculosis patients in four private and public consumptive hospitals.
To see her YouTube talk and video, click on the link here or see it at the library’s website.
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