At 7.3 on the Richter Scale, the earthquake that hit Vancouver Island in 1946 was among the most damaging earthquakes in British Columbia’s history. The quake was felt as far south as Portland, Oregon, and as far north as Prince Rupert, British Columbia. It was the most powerful earthquake in Vancouver Island’s written record, and the most powerful onshore earthquake to be recorded in Canada.
The shaking started at 10:15 a.m. on June 23rd, 1946, with the epicentre located at Forbidden Plateau, a part of Strathcona Park just northwest of Courtenay. At the time, plate tectonics and earthquake safety were little understood in comparison with what we know today. Luckily, however, because the epicentre was in a park and away from heavily populated areas, there was a lot less damage as a result of the shaking than would have been the case were the epicentre to have fallen in a densely populated area. Only two deaths occurred: Jacob L. Kingston, 69, died of a heart attack during the quake, and Daniel Fidler, 50, died in the resulting tsunami.
Still, there was considerable damage to the small towns of Cumberland, Union Bay, and Courtenay, where 75% of the towns’ chimneys were destroyed. The nearby communities of Comox, Port Alberni, and even Powell River on the mainland also suffered damage. More destruction occurred in Vancouver, where the quake caused at least one gas line to crack and the power to go out in several locations. Here, a number of fires broke out and bridges, which swayed like pendulums, suffered fractures. Some fairly substantially-sized buildings shook considerably, and falling debris damaged other nearby buildings. The shaking was also felt in Victoria, where more chimneys were ruined. In these urban centres, the earthquake struck fear into the hearts of the inhabitants, and frightened people were seen running in the streets.
The province is, of course, not unfamiliar with large-scale earthquakes. First Nations’ oral traditions tell of a much more powerful earthquake taking place around 1700. Experts date this quake––that they estimate was between 8.7 and 9.2 on the Richter scale––to specifically 9 p.m. on January 26th, 1700, according to Japanese records that noted the resulting tsunami. As further hints to this earthquake, scientists note a large quantity of tree rings whose last growth season dates to 1699, indicating that large quantities of coastal forests were devastated by the earthquake. Similarly, archaeologists link a number of abandoned coastal villages––abandoned around 1700––to the quake, noting that these villages show evidence of flooding around this time.
Today, of course, there is much more understanding about how and when such large earthquakes might occur in British Columbia, and there is increasing awareness about and preparation for the arrival of another earthquake of the magnitude of the 1700 earthquake. Geological records suggest that large earthquakes, like the one that occurred in 1700, happen at intervals of approximately 570-590 years, with the intervals between such quakes being more specifically about 300 to 900 years. Geological records also show evidence of at least 13 massive earthquakes, with some of these earlier quakes occurring around the years 1310, 810, 400, and 170 BCE. All things considered, it’s always a good idea to have an earthquake kit handy!