Vancouver Island’s ‘Great Fire’ revisited (part one of two)

Vancouver Island's 'Great Fire' revisited (part one of two)

"The conflagration is the most serious in the history of the province."- Premier T.D. Patullo.

I ‘ve told you the story of the "Great Fire" (aka the Bloedel Fire) of 1938 in a previous Chronicle.

But this story

has legs. In fact, you should pardon the pun, it’s really hot right now. No doubt inspired by this summer’s drought and its near-inevitable fires, people have been Googling and finding my article, originally published in the Colonist decades ago, and now on my website.

Ergo this week’s interviews for radio and TV and today’s re-look at this disaster of July 1938 which, although not the most devastating on record, is the most remembered and the best known to subsequent generations. The Great Fire, so-called, has, in fact, become folklore.

To set the stage, July 1938 was the driest since 1874 when the recording of weather conditions began. As a result there were fires not just in B.C. but in California, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska. Even Saskatchewan. Smoke was so thick (last week’s smog wouldn’t have been anything like it) that commercial aircraft were grounded and two ships collided off Port Angeles, their captains blaming zero visibility.

With other fires already burning at Bowser, Great Central Lake, Campbell River and elsewhere, what was to become a Frankenstein that, for a time, prompted fears that it would burn as far south as the Malahat, erupted in a cold deck of cut timbers on the Bloedel, Welch Stuart lease near Duncan Bay, north of Campbell River, late in the afternoon of July 1. Within hours it had spread over five acres despite there being no wind and despite the frantic efforts of loggers pumping water from railway tank cars.

It was already out of control when the wind did pick up, by which time BWS had placed almost their entire workforce in the firelines. Slowly, steadily, the fire grew until it was 700 acres in extent. By then, however, cooling weather conditions gave rise to hopes that the worst was over. So, in fact, it seemed – for four days.

To date, it had consumed 13 cold decks containing 20 million board feet, logging equipment and bridges.

By July 14, however, rising winds began sweeping the flames towards Forbes Landing whose 40 hotel guests were evacuated despite the provincial government having impressed 400 unemployed (this was in the Depression) and 100 Forest Department employees for firefighting duty. News reports began describing the blaze as the worst seen on the Island in years.

In fact, the winds carried burning debris a mile ahead of the firelines, forcing the recruitment of another 200 recruits from Vancouver relief rolls and another 70 loggers from other companies.

With ash falling on Comox "like snow," ships navigating by foghorn, the devastated area was now estimated to be 8,000 acres and now-threatened communities included Elk Falls to the west.

Declared Chief Forester Manning: "This could develop into one of the worst fire seasons in history unless we get damper weather soon."

By the third week, it remained out of control after jumping Quinsam River, Elk Falls and Black Creek had been evacuated, Campbellton was menaced, and exhausted firefighters were working 20-hour shifts with only an occasional sandwich for their meals. Moving on three fronts, the monster reduced visibility throughout the Northwest to just half a mile More reinforcements were needed, the latest being landed at Duncan Bay by the destroyers St. Laurent and Fraser whose crews were readied to assist in the evacuation of Courtenay should it become necessary. En route was HMCS Armentieres with a cargo of shovels and a visiting British naval cruiser, HMS York, offered the services of its 750-man crew. (When gratefully declined, the York carried on to Vancouver.)

Gone now was Forbes Landing amid charges of sabotage (sugar in pump fuel tanks and slashed hoses) by parties unknown but thought to be from the ranks of the unemployed men brought in from Vancouver. Happily, the hotel’s pet deer Trixie was said to be okay, having somehow saved herself.

NOTE: An excellent timeline of this historic fire compiled by B.C. Forest Service researcher John Parminter in 1994, is available online. Just Google Bloedel Fire.

(To be continued)

Cowichan Valley Citizen

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