The Great Fire of 1938 sparked during the longest drought seen in 64 years. The fires started near Campbell River and spread as far south as Courtney. The flames were aggravated by soaring temperatures and strong, unfavourable winds.
The fire was thought to have been started by a spark from a locomotive and was known as the Bloedel Fire as it started on Bloedel Logging Company’s land.
The inferno burned from July 5th to August 16th, 1938, a total of 43 days. For 30 of these days it was considered out of control and spread as much as 6.4 km in 8 hours.
The situation became so dire that local residents were recruited. Only women, children and tourists or those with a doctor’s note were exempt or allowed to leave the area.
Although more fire fighters were needed, the inexperienced fire fighters sent from Vancouver proved to be more of a hindrance than a help. As these men were not fighting for their homes, families and businesses, their energy and willingness to put their lives on the line was limited. Soon these men were sent home and replaced with more residents and loggers.
Not everyone was interested in the fires being extinguished. Someone slashed 305 metres of fire hose and put sugar in a water pump. The loss of a settlement west of Campbell River called Forbes Landing was considered a direct result of this sabotage. Rewards were offered for information on the culprits, but those responsible were never apprehended.
As far south as Port Angeles boats collided and ran aground due to the complete lack of visibility caused by the smoke. In Nanaimo, 100 km from the fires, you couldn’t see much beyond 2 blocks, and house wives complained that the smoke and ash were tarnishing their hanging laundry and curtains.
As many as 2,500 men fought the fire at any one time, and 80 km of hose was used. Many people had to be evacuated and three naval destroyers stood by, ready to perform further evacuations should it prove necessary.
The smoke went a mile high and covered almost two thirds of Vancouver Island. The smoke was seen as far south as Portland, Oregon, 676 kilometres away. To give you an idea of the scale and ferocity of this fire, there were fears that the fire would engulf everything from Campbell River to the Malahat.
Although it’s difficult to see any evidence of the Great Fire in modern day, it’s effects can be seen in our provincial reforestation policies. The 60,000 hectare blaze made officials realize that in order to ensure future forestry there needed to be some changes made. Now it is mandatory for logging companies to replant logged areas. This policy among others has ensured a sustainable future for B.C.’s logging industry.