Military Fire Brigades Get Their Start at Camp Borden

Jan 01
Camp Borden Fire House

During the First World War, the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps set out to accelerate the training of Commonwealth pilots in Canada to meet the growing air needs for the European theatre. Pilots trained in Canada would ultimately fight over the battlefields of Europe, Asia, and Africa and above the adjoining seas. Canadians would eventually play a prominent part in this aerial conflict. On a wintry day in 1917, Lieutenant-Colonel Hoare of the Royal Flying Corps selected Camp Borden as the site for this training in Canada. So urgent was the need that aircraft hangers were constructed within six weeks of the initial inspection. Personnel quarters were also built to accommodate a training squadron and start assembling its aircraft.

In just four months the contractors had erected 57 buildings, cleared and levelled 850 acres, and built five miles of asphalt road and rail sidings. They laid out utility services and installed an electrical system and strung telephone lines to connect the field with Toronto and the neighbouring towns. So rapid was the Camp's progress that Hoare observed in a report to the War Office that "the work appears to be put through at a speed here which is unknown in England." So successful was this method of development that it became the construction standard for later fields.

The Camp's isolated location and the need to be self-reliant with regard to fire protection may have been pivotal in stimulating the beginnings of both the aircraft crash response and structural firefighting capabilities of the Canadian Military Fire Service.

The materials used in building the aircraft hangars and repair buildings were chiefly wood and other combustible material. Concern regarding the density and combustibility of the material prompted the Royal Flying Corps to establish an on-site structural fire brigade. Even so, 17 hangars were destroyed by fire. There were 49 aircraft accidents and 30 fatalities - figures that clearly indicated the need for aircraft rescue and firefighting services.

By war’s end, Camp Borden was recognized by aviation experts as one of the most up-to-date aviation training facilities in the world. RCAF Station Borden was to become the senior station of the Royal Canadian Air Force. While the specifications had spelt out that the buildings at Borden were to be of "semi-permanent nature" and of "the cheapest form of construction possible compatible with strength...." some of the structures remain to this day – some protected by Heritage designation.

This emergence of an organized military fire brigade at Camp Borden was a noteworthy event because it helped set the stage for a fire service that would become an integral part of future military organizations.