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What can we learn from the worst fires in Canadian history?

Although firefighting methods have been revolutionized in recent decades, communities may still underestimate what could be coming


 
Aftermath of the great fire of 1904 which burned through the night of April 19 in downtown Toronto. About 100 buildings and 220 businesses were gutted, leaving a smoking, 7.9-hectare scar. In a city of 219,000 people, 6,000 jobs were lost. The damage was estimated at $11-million but miraculously, no one was killed. (Alexander Galbraith/Galbraith Collection/CP)

Aftermath of the great fire of 1904 which burned through the night of April 19 in downtown Toronto. About 100 buildings and 220 businesses were gutted, leaving a smoking, 7.9-hectare scar. In a city of 219,000 people, 6,000 jobs were lost. The damage was estimated at $11-million but miraculously, no one was killed. (Alexander Galbraith/Galbraith Collection/CP)

Oct. 7, 1825. Miramichi, N.B. The fall was warm, the harvest bountiful, when the north of town began to burn. Locals assumed the clouds were part of a rainstorm. When they noticed flames, they dashed for the Miramichi River, in which they stood up to their necks for eight hours. More than 200 people died. Such was the first major forest fire recorded in Canadian history.

As the fire in Fort McMurray sets records in terms of insurance and damage costs, its magnitude and response can be put into context by examining the past. As of Thursday afternoon, the fires had spread to 85,000 hectares, and, while destructive, they have fortunately not resulted in any direct casualties; the largest in Canadian history—the Great Fire of 1919 in Saskatchewan and Alberta—spanned 2.8 million hectares, while the Matheson Fires in 1916 Ontario killed 244 people and destroyed 49 towns.

History can teach us to better understand fire—and these are lessons we’re going to need. In the last century, the largest three per cent of fires accounted for 97 per cent of the total area burned, and the vast majority were ignited by lightning. Although the fires of today kill fewer people, it is a result of better firefighting rather than smaller fires “We’re facing increasingly intense fires,” says Peter Murphy, a retired professor of forest fire management at the University of Alberta. “They burn hotter, move faster and take more space.”

Before fire alarms, municipalities would ring church bells to alert people to evacuate, or a “runner” would dash through the town with a rattle. By the time the Great Toronto Fire struck in 1904, putting 5,000 people out of work and levelling an area equivalent of 24 Central Parks, the city had established a fire department. Firefighters wore hot leather helmets and rode horse-drawn carriages, equipped with coiled hoses and ladders, which were raised by a hand crank. Before modern fire extinguishers, diligent homeowners were equipped with beakers full of chemical retardants to throw at the fire, known as “glass grenades.”

On a day dubbed “Black Tuesday” in 1911, 73 people died during a forest fire that burned from Michigan through southern Ontario. The province saw its deadliest flames four years later with the Matheson Fires, shortly before the Great Fire of 1919 scorched near Fort McMurray. Two decades later, a fire in 1936 in southern Alberta spread nearly 8,000 hectares (about one-eighth the area of Edmonton). “It was analogous to the conditions in Fort McMurray now,” says Murphy. “It really marked the start of Alberta forest protection.”

In the wake of these infernos, fire brigades were strengthened across the country, and during the Second World War, hundreds of Canadians volunteered overseas to fight fires in England. Most important, they introduced air personnel specifically for fire detection. “If you’re going to attack fires,” says Murphy, “you have to do it when they’re small.” Equipment improved in time to respond to the Manitoba fires of 1989, which led 24,500 people to be evacuated from 32 communities and cost $65 million (compared to Fort McMurray’s anticipated $9 billion). It led to new emergency plans in 15 communities.

Also in the 1980s, Canada developed a rating system to determine the likelihood of fires in certain areas of forest, and the index was adopted by countries including Portugal, Australia, the U.S. and Fiji. “We are refining our tools to better forecast the fire danger risk,” says Yan Boulanger, a forest ecologist with Natural Resources Canada. However, fire analysts still don’t have a system to rank fires once they occur. “There’s no severity index yet,” says Boulanger.

Prior to this blaze in Fort McMurray, the 21st century’s most famous Canadian fire broke out in Slave Lake, Alta., in May 2011. The town’s 7,000 people had to evacuate, and the town suffered $750 million in damages. Looking to the future, Boulanger points to statistics that show the area burned each year has increased since the 1970s. Rising temperatures bode for worse conditions. “According to the most aggressive climate scenario,” says Boulanger, “we can talk about as much as two or four times as much fire [in 2100] as right now.”

Although firefighting methods have been revolutionized in recent decades, communities may still underestimate what could be coming. “You’d be impressed with the sophistication of the departments,” says Murphy, “but it’s just astonishing how [fires] can burn. We’re chasing a moving target … we’re ready for fires of the past, but we don’t seem to be ready for the fires of the future.”

 

 


 

What can we learn from the worst fires in Canadian history?

  1. You left out the Great Fire of 1919. On May 19th, 96 years ago, a conflagration burst across the northern parts of western Canada. Fueled by incredible high winds that blew widdershins – first one direction, then another, unpredictable and at gale force – the tinder-dry boreal forest blew up.

    At Lac la Biche, Alberta, the town was surrounded, with almost no warning. East from Lac la Biche, in not just one fire but a complex of fires burning on the same day, other towns faced a dire situation. Bonnyville. Green Lake. Big River. Smaller villages, such as Goodridge and Debden, and Montreal Lake looked disaster and ruin in the eye.

    In Big River, a major hub of the western Canadian lumber industry, piles of cut wood worth hundreds of thousands of dollars were in the path of the flames. In an instant, 1000 lumber workers became fire fighters, and the flames were stopped 200 yards from the complex. Nearby, hundreds of Aboriginal men, settlers, forest rangers and all able-bodied help formed crews to beat back fires wherever and however they could.

    In the end, 2.8 million hectares of forest burned. The Great Fire of 1919 was one of the largest fire complexes ever to burn the boreal forest.

  2. Trying to compare fires of today with previous fires is kind of senseless. 50 years go, even 30 years ago, the number of people living in northern communities would have been few. But once people move in, the rational stuff that should be done (such as controlled burns or even letting a fire burn) is not done. Results are a lot of dry trash that builds up over the years and it doesn’t take much to get it going.

    I’m not suggesting people should move to such places, but this is where authorities really need to be firm on break lines, outdoor fireplaces etc. (rather than trying to micromanage how many sugary drinks we consume).

    • This is an argument you don’t hear much of.

      One of the biggest contributors to big forest fires is the lack of small ones. Brush fires that clear out weeds and undergrowth are important to ensure the fires never get big enough to burn the trees. We’ve gotten too good at fighting the small ones, that we are setting up conditions for the big ones.

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