Some nights I go to bed and worry about the Burnt Lands. Not much I can do personally, but I can keep people aware. It really needs to be protected better, and respected.
Burnt Lands Road is named for a fire that swept through the area more than a century ago. The road is on an alvar, a flat landscape also known as a limestone pavement, where soil is thin or non-existent. It is part of a rare and fragile ecosystem. Ottawa Gatineau Geo- heritage calls it “an outstanding example of this globally significant habitat.” The cracked and fractured limestone is dotted with stands of cedar, spruce, balsam fir and poplars. It supports some 82 breeding bird species, 48 butterfly species and 98 owlet moths and is home to a globally rare orchid called the ram’s head lady’s slipper. Some of the alvar is on private land. About 610 hectares of it has been designated an Area of Natural and Scientific Interest by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.
In 1986 Pat Taylorosa had a passion for the history and shapes of rocks returned to university to complete a study on the Burnt Lands of Almonte, an area famous for it’s great fire of 1870 and it’s many rare and unusual species of plants. Mrs Taylor, the mother of two young children, has a love o f geology that knows no bounds. Recently, she sat in her living room with the floor covered in geological maps and books, explaining the interesting facets of Almonte’s Burnt Lands. “The Great Fire ” of 1870 started at Pitch Hill, a few miles from Almonte and swept along throughout Huntley and March townships, consuming a great part of Carleton county.
The line cedar log fences for which the area was noted, acted as conductors. According to a report in an Ottawa paper of the day “ it was said that no horse could gallop as fast as those flames spread along the fences.” The air was on fire, presumably from combustible gasses gathered during the sweltering heat of the preceding weeks.
According to the information, people hid anywhere they could to escape the ravages of the flames. Hundreds spent the night submerged in the river at Bells Corners, which was the focus of the fire. It was said that people could read by the light 50 miles away, and the smoke was seen in upper New York state. About a dozen human lives were lost and a great deal of livestock.
After the fire The Almonte Gazette reported that a cow could be bought for four dollars, because there was not a trace of feed or grazing space left. Fires had been prevalent all that summer, and The Gazette didn’t report this one until a week later when it listed names of people and the losses they had suffered. The area was ripe for fire because of its topography; a thin layer of soil overlying limestone “ pavement” at the highest point on the landscape. This resulted in excellent drainage which left the plateau bone dry as the summer passed, it was August at the time of the fire, and the bush was like tinder. It was a natural for such a great fire.
Today, little has changed in the Burnt Lands area anymore, as farming is not possible with the thin layer of soil, but the trees still grow —-notably white pine, white cedar and white spruce. The Burnt Lands, like all of this area up to the Mississippi River was under the Champlain Sea until about 12,000 years ago, and according to Mrs Taylor, this accounts for the line of gravel pits extending along the edge o f Ramsay Township. These were beaches at one time: In these areas and in similar sand deposits are being discovered whale and seal bones and seashells. By 1870, of course, the sea had receded to it’s present location. ( read- Whale Sightings in Pakenham and Smiths Falls – Holy SeaWorld! and – Whale Sightings Outside Smiths Falls– Part 2)
The Burnt Lands has long been recognized as having a unique assemblage of plant life divided among the three types of habitat on the plateau. The areas mosaic the plateau. Communities of low pasture grass, open coniferous forests and bare limestone pavement are the most noticeable.
The grassy meadows are perhaps the most interesting, according to Mrs. Taylor Richardson Philadelphia Witchgrass and dropseed which are found here are considered to be rare in the province of Ontario. In the early summer can be found the showy yellow balsam ragwort and later on the white flowers of the Uplant white aster can be spotted.
The limestone pavement habitat looks just as it sounds, with flat bare rock patches edged with mosses and miniature plants growing in the soil trapped in cracks. Here is found in spring the Early Saxifrage, which only lives for a day. Later, the tiny Rock Sandwort and attractive blue Harebell can be spotted.
Later on in the summer are many of the showy flowers called Hairy Beardtongue and the lovely blue Fringed Gentian. The open evergreen forests also have their share of rare and unusual plants with equally intriguing names. In May is the, rarely found in Canada, exotic, Ramshead Lady-slipper orchid and the showy red columbine. Pink gaywings and another orchid, the yellow lady-slipper can be found along with the hairy honey suckle and the rare Cooper’s Milkvetch which is known in Latin as “neglected star galaxy” (rough translation).
The area is a suitable habitat for small mammals and even some deer and is especially accessible for hiking.
With files from the Almonte Gazette 1985.