Vancouver Island’s ‘Great Fire’ of August 1938, conclusion

It has been estimated that, besides the immediate costs of fighting it, the Great Fire cost the provincial economy 50,000 years’ worth of employment (2,000 men x 25 years) and five billion board feet of cut timber.

For all the efforts of 1,700 firefighters, with 45 mile per hour winds fanning them, the flames advanced four miles in eight hours and now paralleled the Island Highway for a 10-mile stretch.

With the evacuation of the entire region between Headquarters, Courtenay, Bevan and Cumberland, "The situation on the lower coast is fraught with more serious danger to life and property than has ever existed within the experience of the Lands Department," it was reported.

The crew of a logging locomotive who raced through a wall of flames to save 13 piles of cold-decked timber were cited as heroes: "It was the most unbelievably brave thing I have ever seen. Those boys must be made of asbestos," said an awed observer. It was so hot that rails curled up into horseshoes and the windows of the locomotive’s cab exploded.

Compare this to a new fire at Oyster River that was believed to be the work of an arsonist.

As RCN seamen joined in a bucket brigade at Bevan, Premier T.D. Patullo declared,

"The conflagration is the most serious in the history of the province." Those who cut hoses to get out of the firelines or who started new fires were "fiends," he said, and he offered $1,000 reward for their arrest.

With Forbidden Plateau

now in the fire’s sights, the area under assault extending 25 miles long by five to 10 miles wide. As Bevan, Cumberland and Courtenay prepared to evacuate, July 22 was termed Black Friday. The fire having grown by a third in just 24 hours. Nerves were further rattled by erroneous reports in U.S. newspapers that Courtenay and 500 residents were "now ashes!" Instead, for the 2,500 men now in the firelines, the beginning of a miracle. Although the fire had broken through to tidewater at one point, easing winds and falling humidity changed things dramatically. By July 26 – after three bitter weeks of trying to contain the holocaust, the most threatened communities were now considered to be safe, the fire even "licked." As indeed proved to be the case. Throughout that week the emergency continued to ease to the point that 400 men were released from the firelines and Aug. 1 brought rain.

Gone were 85 square miles of prime timber and an incalculable toll of wildlife. It has been estimated that, besides the

immediate costs of fighting it, the Great Fire cost the provincial economy 50,000 years’ worth of employment (2,000 men x 25 years) and five billion board feet of cut timber.

The Great, or Bloedel, Fire isn’t the worst in Island history but it is the most memorable. The charge of sugar in the gas tank of the fire pump at Forbes Landing proved to be erroneous and it has been acknowledged that the almost 2,000 unemployed men who were pressed into firefighting service performed heroically, without the help of today’s firefighting wonder, the water bomber.

How big was the Great Fire? Just look at a map of mid-Vancouver Island. The area covered is immense. Add in all the development that has occurred since then, the cost of such a conflagration today is almost beyond calculation let alone the threat to human and wildlife. Happily, three-quarters of a century and Mother Nature have all but obliterated traces of this disaster.

Which brings us to the present and the ongoing, even increasing threat of forest fires throughout this hot and dry summer. Let’s be careful out there, folks!

NOTE: "Darkness at Noon," a complete timeline of this historic fire compiled by B.C. Forest Service researcher John Parminter in 1994, is available online. Just Google Bloedel Fire.

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