Ontario on Fire: Digital Archive Images

April 30, 2018 | David

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Two fire fighters spray into a burning building

Behold Ontario in flames. Fires can devastate land, property and livelihoods — and some even claim lives. The images in this post capture fires that happened across Ontario during the 20th century. 

In world history, fires can be so significant that they become their own encyclopedia entries: e.g. Great Fire of Rome (64 AD), Great Fire of London (1666). And the same applies to Ontario's history: e.g. Great Fire of Toronto (1849), Great Fire of Toronto (1904), Great Matheson Fire (1916), Great Fire of 1922 (Timiskaming District).

Below are digitized photos (plus one poster) of both small and large fires from Toronto Public Library's Digital Archive. It's just a small selection of the many disasters that have filled Ontario's skies with smoke.  


Four men on a roof looking out at ruins from a fire


Flames coming out of one building and water fighting the fire coming from a building across the street

  • Canadian Feather & Mattress Company building caught on fire in Toronto on May 9, 1905. As junctioneer points out, this photo shows the difficulty of fighting fires in tall buildings at the time.

Bulletin posted after a 1916 fire destroyed the Parliament buildings in Ottawa

  • This bulletin was posted after a 1916 fire burnt down the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa on February 3, 1916. Seven individuals lost their lives. As a CBC article points out, the cause of the fire is one of the great mysteries of Canadian history. Some believe that it was started by German saboteurs, as it happened during the First World War. Poster text:

"Special / Friday, February 4, 1916 / The Dominion House of Parliament is in Ruins. Fire Which broke out at 9.15 last night swept through the commons and senate chamber and destroyed whole building, except library. Main tower fell. Two women and four men killed. / Citizen News Bulletin"


Aerial view of a fire and burnt buildings and a firefighters spraying water

  • On October 25, 1969, a gas pipe explosion in the Mississauga neighbourhood of Malton caused a fire which killed one resident and injured about 20 others. Learn more in The Day Malton Blew Up with images from the Mississauga Library System. (Photo courtesy Toronto Star Photograph Archive.)


Four men on a roof looking out at ruins from a fire

  • This aerial photo of a forest in Northern Ontario captures one of 1,625 Ontario wildfires from 1974. According to a report by the National Forest Service, almost 1.3 million acres were destroyed by forest fires. It was the largest area burned since 1923. (Photo courtesy Toronto Star Photograph Archive.)


Ruined small town with man walking through

  • A devastating 1977 fire left the town of Cobalt in ruins and about 400 people homeless. Over 100 volunteer firefighters from the surrounding area responded to the fire but they could not contain the blaze. (Photo courtesy Toronto Star Photograph Archive.)


Fire truck spraying water on billowing smoke

  • On April 25, 1978, seven warehouses went up in flames in Oakville. A pillar of smoke could be seen for 160 kilometres, all due to a grass fire that spread to a nearby warehouse and eventually reached explosive supplies. There were no fatalities. (Details from Toronto Star, photo courtesy Toronto Star Photograph Archive.)


Aerial view of a refinery on fire with lots of smoke

  • On October 2, 1978, Thomas Coxhead, an employee at the Texaco Refinery in Port Credit started a fire that led to the evacuation of over 1,000 people and millions of dollars in damage. Coxhead was sentenced to ten years in prison for arson. (Details from Mississauga Library System, photo courtesy Toronto Star Photograph Archive.)


Three fire fighters rolling up hoses in front of of a burnt Woolworth's building

  • Scarborough's Golden Mile Plaza — once Canada's largest mall — suffered from a fire in 1986. Built in the 1950s, the mall was mostly made of wood. (Photo courtesy Toronto Star Photograph Archive.)


Aftermath of fire in subdivision with many burnt down houses

  • A single cigarette butt may have started a fire that leveled 105 houses in this new subdivision construction site in Markham in 1987. (Details from Toronto Star, photo courtesy Toronto Star Photograph Archive.)


Airplane dropping water over a pile of smoking tires

  • The tire fire in Hagersville burned for a remarkable 17 days, starting February 12, 1990. Dark smoke hemorrhaged into the sky from massive piles of burning tires. Five youths were held responsible, with four ending up serving time in jail. (Details from CTV video, photo courtesy Toronto Star Photograph Archive.)



List that tallies the causes of fires