The Fort McMurray Fire and the Great Fire of 1919
In just two short paragraphs, the Edmonton newspaper account captured the destruction and relief felt that all were safe after a wildfire overwhelmed the town:
Swept away in the maelstrom of a raging forest fire which descended upon the place like a furnace blast on Monday afternoon, the little village … is today a mere smouldering mass of ruin and desolation, and its entire population is homeless and bereft of all personal effects, save scant articles of clothing which could be worn through the nerve-wracking struggle the people were forced to make to preserve their lives.
The absence of a death toll in the catastrophe is due to the heroic measures taken by the citizens, who rushed into the waters of the lake and defied suffocating heat and smoke by means of wet blankets. Only such measures saved many of the women and little children, the intensity of the fire being shown by the burning of the very reeds along the shore and surface of the lake.
That report may sound like the Fort McMurray fire that’s forced the evacuation of tens of thousands in Alberta. But it is not. It’s from the Edmonton Bulletin, dated May 21, 1919. The article was recounting the wildfire that burned over the village of Lac La Biche about 200 km (120 miles) northeast of Edmonton. In time, historians labeled it the Great Fire of 1919, and later still forget that it even happened. It’s rather remarkable that a fire that burned about 2 million hectares (5 million acres) and transformed a region’s landscape and culture could be forgotten, but it was. (If people can forget a forest, then forgetting a fire seems plausible.)
Fortunately, historians Peter J. Murphy, Cordy Tymstra, and Merle Massie document the Great Fire and its impact and legacy—and why it faded from memory—in “The Great Fire of 1919: People and A Shared Firestorm in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada,” available in the most recent issue of Forest History Today. The Great Fire is not the largest on record. That honor belongs to The Chinchaga Firestorm, the largest wildfire ever documented in North America. But what sets it apart from others is the fire’s lasting impact on the landscape and soil, fire policy, and ownership of public lands—impacts the “The Great Fire of 1919” details.
The parallels between the Great Fire and Fort McMurray fire are striking: dry conditions “that desiccated the surrounding region and created a tinder-dry powder keg”; it was not one fire but a complex of many fires; the source of the fire is unknown; and that residents of one village—in 1919, it was Lac La Biche; today it’s Fort McMurray—managed to get out of harm’s way. But in 1919, not all were so lucky. In one instance, a group of 23 Cree were camping at Sekip Lake when the fire overran them in a matter of minutes. Eleven died, including a father who’s quick action saved his wife and children, though “the 12 survivors ‘bore the marks of their burns for life.’” Massie explained in a blog post written during last year’s fire season how the family might have been caught unaware of the approaching fire: “A boreal forest fire is deadly, a conflagration along the ground. Crowning, climbing up the trees to burn the tops like matches, a crowned forest fire is even more deadly. When whipped by vicious gale force winds, or across a boreal landscape dried to tinder, such a forest fire moves faster than either humans or animals.”
The boreal forest is a fire-based ecological regime, explains Massie in her book Forest Prairie Edge. “When a dry season hits, the boreal forest contains a magnitude of flammable timber and debris, peat and moss, shrubs and grasses…. In general, fire hazard is highest in jack pine stands, intermediate in spruce or fir stands, and low in hardwood (primarily trembling aspen) stands, except in a dry spring, when forest floor debris is particularly flammable.” According to Stephen Pyne in Awful Splendour, his history of fire in Canada, “The boreal region is home to Canada’s largest fires, its greatest fire problems, and its most distinctive fire regimes, the ones that define Canada as a fire nation…. Over 90 percent of the country’s big fires, which account for over 97 percent of its burned area, lie within the boreal belt.” Additionally, as Peter Murphy pointed out in an email today, the Fort McMurray fire reminds us “that the boreal forest complex can support the growth of large and high-intensity fires with its continuity of flammable fuels; and that spring can be a particularly hazardous time between ‘break-up and green-up’—that period after the snow is gone, ice breaks up, and before new leaves and needles are fully formed.” Perhaps looking at the calendar and realizing it’s only the first week of May, Cordy Tymstra, the Wildfire Science Coordinator with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry in Edmonton and author of The Chinchaga Firestorm offered this via email: “There is a lot of fire season remaining and a lot of fire still on the landscape around Fort McMurray.”
To read more about about the 1919 fire or other major Canadian fires, see: https://www.facebook.com/HyloVeniceCentenary/posts/257744001047212 http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/what-can-we-learn-from-the-worst-fires-in-canadian-history/