Forest fire exhibit recalls heroic ranger who perished in huge blaze

"And in his hand, so tightly clasped, we found his Badge of Service as if to say, ‘I’ve done my duty.’"

Through August, the B.C. Forest Discovery Centre is celebrating, if that’s the right word, The Bloedel Fire aka The Sayward Fire aka The Campbell River Fire which is remembered by many, simply, as The Great Fire of 1938.

"Burning Snags and Raining Ashes" also honours the B.C. Forest Service and it struck me that this would have been a great opportunity to acknowledge Ranger Oliver Gosnold Clark, killed in the line of duty after performing a "deed of heroism unsurpassed in British annals".

Late spring of 1925 had been unusually hot and tinder-dry, and outbreaks in the Qualicum, Ladysmith and Capilano areas soon spread out of control.

Farther north, it was tersely reported that: "Fifty men are fighting a losing battle against a forest fire which threatened to drive them to the water at any moment at Hanson Logging Camp No. 3, Campbell River District. Relief gangs are snatching their brief periods of rest on booms far out in the water… Camp No. 4 was destroyed by fire Wednesday. Oliver G. Clark, forest ranger, was burned to death in this blaze, and the entire equipment was destroyed."

Two days later, all fires were under control and a search party had recovered the body of the 35-year-old Deep Cove bachelor. A veteran of the 88th Battalion during the war, he was serving his second season as a fire ranger in the Campbell River area.

Four months after his funeral, Premier John Oliver, members of the Legislature, prominent leaders of the lumber industry and members of the provincial Forestry Department unveiled a plaque to Clark’s memory. The Provincial Library also displays

his photo and a memorial scroll.

It reads: "To the memory of Oliver Gosnold Clark, Ranger, B.C. Forest Service, who lost his life in the noble discharge of duty on the 25th day of June, 1925, at Port Neville.

"A fire, of which he had charge, was whipped beyond control by a sudden change of wind, leaving only a few minutes for escape. Ignoring his own danger, Clark carried the warning to his crews and saw them all safely to rafts and boats in the Bay. He returned to the logging camp to make sure that no one had been missed.

"His body was subsequently found by his comrades – his Forest Service badge clasped tightly in his lifeless hand – bearing mute testimony that he had magnificently conceived and nobly discharged his duty.

"Ranger Clark has gone but has left us with an inspiring example of heroism and devotion to duty – which will persist until the last forest fire is conquered and completely out."

Initial efforts had seemed to contain the blaze but when a sudden wind change sent it careening towards the small coastal community of Port Neville, Clark ordered the women and children to the beach where he had a launch waiting. Concerned that not everyone had made it to safety, he ran back to check even as flaming trees fell about him.

The record states, "…Supervisor J. Thompson and Engineer Haley who were upon the Forest launch, clung for hours to the outskirts of that raging inferno at the imminent risk of their own lives, in the vain hope of saving Clark. Time and again their craft was actually afire, but still they stayed until all hope of rescuing Clark had fled and they were able to rescue only his body. Then, and not until then, did they leave the spot."

Clark’s body was found just six feet from the water’s edge, his Ranger’s badge clasped in his hand. It’s thought that he hoped to protect it from the fire that it might confirm his identity much in the way his dogtags would have done during his service in the trenches.

They named a Forest Service vessel after him and, as a poignant footnote, posthumously promoted him from Assistant Ranger to full Forest Ranger.