The Chinchaga Firestorm
By Paul Homewood
The Alberta fire that has just ravaged the city of Fort McMurray is a monster by all accounts, Latest estimates suggest that an area of some 600 square miles has burnt, leading to claims that the fire that is the size of Hong Kong and almost 25% bigger than New York City.
However, the current wildfire pales into insignificance at the side of the Chinchiga Firestorm of 1950, which was estimated to have destroyed between 5400 and 6500 square miles in northern Alberta and British Columbia. Of course, there is a major difference between now and then – there were no cities built in the region in those days. Fort McMurray, for instance, which has been at the centre of the current fire, now has a population of around 80000, built up in the middle of the Athabasca oil sands.
Back in 1966, however, its population was just 2000.
As a result, the Chinchaga fire attracted relatively little attention at the time. It took authors Cordy Tymstra and Mike Flannigan to put the record straight last year in their book, The Chinchaga Firestorm.
This is the review of their book, written by Stephen Pyne for the University of British Columbia:
Some fires are justly renowned. Some are celebrities — known for being known. A few are famous for being unknown. The 1871 Peshtigo fire in the US has long marketed itself as America’s Forgotten Fire. The Canadian equivalent may be the 1950 Chinchaga burn.
In truth, the Chinchaga fire complex has been known in the Canadian forestry community since it happened, and over the past couple of decades it has been studied by Peter Murphy and Cordy Tymstra, who worked out its dimensions and dynamics. But there is a difference between a big fire and a great one, and the Chinchaga complex has nestled among the big. Now Tymstra and Mike Flannigan have returned to argue that it is also a great fire in its ecological and political effects and its message for Canadian society. No longer a big burn, it is reimagined as a firestorm.
The Chinchaga fires became large because the boreal forest is extensive, unbroken by the lakes of the Canadian Shield; because the major fires started early and burned through the long season; and because, north of the Peace River, the fires were beyond the established line of control for both the British Columbia and Alberta forest services. The largest of the pack, the 1.4 million hectare [5468 sq miles] Chinchaga River Fire, merits detailed reconstruction here in its own chapter. Some 81 per cent of fire spread occurred over a fifteen-day period, the bulk during the great wind of 20-22 September 1950.
It’s harder to demonstrate the Chinchaga fires’ significance beyond that staggering scale. They didn’t get recorded on official statistics or fire atlases. They didn’t seem to influence major policy shifts, which were underway for other reasons. They didn’t burn in or over communities as the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park Fire, near Kelowna, and the 2011 Slave Lake Fire did. Their major influence was an extraordinary plume — what became known as the Great Smoke Pall — that, “sandwiched” between inversions, stayed aloft for seven days while it trended southeast to the US before warping northeastward and turning the sun and moon blue in Scotland. The pall and its effects merit two chapters.
The text covers a lot of topics — anything that might give explanation, context, or comparison to the Chinchaga fires. But like the scattering of light by which smoke obscures visibility, a narrative scatter blurs rather than sharpens the contours. The text bounces from fact-particle to fact-particle, from one research project to another, from people who are introduced in 1952 and who then reappear in 1948. The authors note that a fire prevention program in the Peace River Country was a “huge success,” as reported by the Peace River Record Gazette on 21 September 1950; yet this was exactly the time of the great surge of burning (122). The fires were singular, yet “not an anomaly” (133). The Chinchaga River Fire had “lasting impacts,” yet it is absent from the 1957 forest cover map of Alberta that “represents the first view of Alberta’s forests” before modern fire suppression ramped up (xxiv, 13). A kind of explanatory pall hangs over the book that impresses by its dimensions yet can confuse in its details.
This is surely the definitive account of the Chinchaga complex. It will be welcomed by the North American fire community and by anyone interested in the settlement of the Boreal Plains Ecozone of western Canada.