Photo Credit: Duncan’s BC Forest Discovery Centre / T.W. Paterson

A Great Big Fire

Today, a similar fire would have much more serious impacts

In 1938, a massive fire destroyed logging camps, farms, thousands of hectares of old growth and nearly burned Campbell River and Courtenay

Fire season is getting scarier every year. This summer wasn’t to bad, but some are predicting a hot September. But this isn’t the first time fires threatened VanIse.

Eighty years ago, Vancouver Island was the scene of one of BC’s most destructive fires. Like this summer, 1938 was a scorcher. Islanders endured the longest drought experienced in the Pacific Northwest in more than 60 years. Months of little rain and heat had left the woods of VanIsle tinder dry. As a result, conditions were prime for forest fires.

On July 5 that year, workers for the logging company Bloedel, Stewart and Welch discovered a small fire near Menzies Bay north of Campbell River. They knew right away that it was trouble. The wind quickly whipped the blaze out of control. Within 48 hours, several thousand acres of prime timber were burned.

Chief Forester EC Manning called in planes, trucks, bulldozers, steam shovels, and more than 750 men to fight the fire. By day three, the so-called Bloedel fire was threatening Campbell River. A brief respite of rain and cool weather looked promising.  But it was short-lived.  Hot, windy weather resumed.

On July 14, the fire jumped Campbell Lake near Loveland Bay. Flames crowned from treetop to treetop, on their way to consuming another whopping 30,000 acres of forest. Winds, fueled by the fire, gusted up to 150km/hour. By July 21, 50,000 acres of forest were gone.

But the fire wasn’t done yet. As the flames raged, A. Wells Gray, the Minister of Lands, called the situation “fraught with more serious danger to life and property than has ever existed within the experience of the Lands Department.”

Provincial Police Insp. Robert Owens also painted a grim picture after inspecting the damage.

Newly-arrived firefighters, many of them on relief as this was still in the Depression; some were recruited, willingly and otherwise, from Vancouver area beer parlours
Credit: T.W. Paterson

 “The fire is now…sweeping southeast before a stiff new wind. At present, it looks as if the fire cannot be held away from the Comox logging camps, towards which it was heading when I left. A great pall of smoke covers the whole of the roadway to Victoria.”

Soon the Comox Logging Camp was gone, along with it with 3 million board feet of cut lumber. A new fire near Oyster River, believed to be caused by arsons, added to the battle. Ash from the Vancouver Island fire rained down on Burnaby and the North Shore mountains on the Mainland.

The fire raced through virgin timber past Constitution Hill, northwest of Headquarters, and towards Forbidden Plateau. By then, 1,600 people were fighting the fire, and the government brought in the Royal Canadian Navy to deliver firefighting equipment and personnel up island.

According to local historian T.W. Patterson, firefighters were recruited “mostly from the ranks of the Vancouver unemployed.” He added, having been given no training or safety gear around a thousand men had to be discharged for “inefficiency and unwillingness to take their places in the fire lines”.

Civilian refugees in a government tent-camp
Credit: T.W. Paterson

In the meantime, residents of Forbidden Plateau, Black Creek, Merville, Headquarters and other outlying communities were evacuated to Courtenay. Finally, rain arrived near the end of July, and temperatures cooled enough to give firefighters the upper hand.

In the end, the fire burned more than 74,495 acres of forest between Menzies Bay and the Browns River near Courtenay. And it cost an estimated 25 years of work for 2,000 people and burned down logging camps, lumber and rural homesteads.

It’s been 80 years since this fire. You have to look hard to find the charred stumps and trees that were left behind. However, the fire remains the stuff of legends. It reminds us that Vancouver Island isn’t immune from out-of-control wildfires.

Today, climate change is raising the stakes for catastrophic fires. If a similar fire were to happen today on a much more populated Vancouver Island, the loss of property and life could be far worse.