Skip to content

The Chinchaga Firestorm

May 10, 2016

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.

  1. May 10, 2016 5:03 pm

    Speaking as an outsider of the fire fighting community, it seems to me that in this case and in numerous other forest fires, regardless of region, it takes far too long before the “big guns” are called into action. I’m referring to the use of air tankers, perhaps their use is more expensive, but to wait until the fires develop to a larger scale, at the end is more devastating. Therefore, when lighting strikes, dispatch a small chopper with several hundred gallons of fire retardant on the fire and keep it from spreading to the point where it becomes overwhelming. Just a thought!

    • May 11, 2016 1:00 am

      Marijan Favetti

      Water bombers don’t actually put out fires; ground crews do that.

      when lighting strikes, dispatch a small chopper with several hundred gallons of fire retardant on the fire and keep it from spreading to the point where it becomes overwhelming. Just a thought!
      They already do that!

      A forest fire creates its own weather, for instance: A pyrocumulus cloud, or fire cloud, is a dense cumuliform cloud associated with fire or volcanic eruptions which may produce dry lightning (lightning without rain and they create hurricane force winds. No amount of water bomber could have put out this fire.

      • A C Osborn permalink
        May 11, 2016 2:44 pm

        That is a very one sided argument.
        Ask any Wild Fire firefighters if the would like some help from super tanker aircraft and you won’t hear any of them say “no they don’t help at all”.

        It is the same argument that Aircraft cannot win wars, only men on the ground.
        Ask the men on the ground if they would rather not have Air Cover and see what they say, they wouldn’t last very long without it and neither do capital ships.

  2. May 10, 2016 5:26 pm

    I expected that much smoke in late 1950 might have cooled the climate a bit in 1951. Nope:

    1950 was a cold year, and maybe the smoke had something to do with that, but 1951 was not a particularly cold year.

    Perhaps the difference between smoke from fires and ash from big volcanoes is that volcanic ash can be shot much higher, and stay in the atmosphere much longer.

    • May 10, 2016 6:25 pm

      DB, unless aerosols (here, smoke) reach the stratosphere they wash out very rapidly, typically >95% in ❤ months depending on latitude and seasonal weather. This has been studied quite a bit for volcanic aerosols following major eruptions, and for industrial aerosols (coal smoke) in Northeastern north America (acid rain) and the China plume over the Pacific. More details in essay Blowing Smoke in book of same name. So very unlikely Chinchaga would have affected either 1950 or 1951 global temps.

  3. May 10, 2016 5:41 pm

    Within all the coverage of the Fort McMurray Alberta wildfire, there have also been lazy journalists linking the event to fossil fuel-driven global warming, with a special delight of this being located near the oil sands. The best call to reason has come from A Chemist in Langley, who argues for defensible science against mindless activism. Of course, he has taken some heat for being so rational.

    Here is what he said about the data and the models regarding boreal forest wildfires:

    Well the climate models indicate that in the long-term (by the 2091-2100 fire regimes) climate change, if it continues unabated, should result in increased number and severity of fires in the boreal forest. However, what the data says is that right now this signal is not yet evident. While some increases may be occurring in the sub-arctic boreal forests of northern Alaska, similar effects are not yet evident in the southern boreal forests around Fort McMurray.

    My final word is for the activists who are seeking to take advantage of Albertans’ misfortunes to advance their political agendas. Not only have you shown yourselves to be callous and insensitive at a time where you could have been civilized and sensitive but you cannot even comfort yourself by hiding under the cloak of truth since, as I have shown above, the data does not support your case.

    Also, the anti-pipeline crowd has distorted the oilsands project:

  4. Joe Public permalink
    May 10, 2016 5:46 pm

    Further to ‘Alberta’s Wildfire’ posting of a couple of days ago, Steve McIntyre subsequently tweeted about Fort McMurray’s “Municipal Development Plan”, and that recognising the forest was a CO2 sink, its removal even for firebreaks, had to be avoided.

    “Issue: Preservation of Natural Wildlife and Fish Habitat

    The region contains large areas of boreal forest, which are home to a diverse variety of wildlife and which absorb carbon dioxide that would otherwise contribute to climate change. The forestry industry, as well as, urban and industrial development are reducing the size of these natural areas through the construction of roads, pipeline corridors, power transmissions corridors and seismic lines.

    5.5.6 Ensuring, to the greatest extent possible, that natural features of development sites (trees, vegetation, wetlands, etc.) are not removed or filled;”

    Click to access Municipal+Development+Plan.pdf

  5. Paul2 permalink
    May 10, 2016 9:35 pm

    I think we’ve found an answer to all this:

  6. Paul2 permalink
    May 10, 2016 10:01 pm

    Sorry, off topic again:

  7. May 11, 2016 3:38 am

    Firefighters save about 90 per cent of Fort McMurray.

    … 2,400 buildings were torched, but 25,000 were saved, including the hospital, municipal buildings and schools. Much of the downtown and the water treatment plant are also intact.

    Darby said between 40 and 50 per cent of Fort McMurray could have been destroyed if firefighters hadn’t been able to hold back the flames at key points, especially the downtown.

  8. John F. Hultquist permalink
    May 11, 2016 4:32 am

    … the Chinchaga fire attracted relatively little attention at the time.

    I lived in Western Pennsylvania at the time of Chinchaga. The sky took on an “end of world” appearance and that got a lot of attention. The problem was we did not know what caused this. The first TV in the neighborhood came about 1954 and even so there were no movies to show — even in black & white. I think the first fast news reports with video did not come until the Vietnam War about 20 years later.
    Our sky turned on Sunday. The Pittsburgh newspapers carried the story later in the week.

  9. May 12, 2016 6:05 am

    “Women’s rights and reproductive health

    Women’s empowerment and gender equality are essential for reproductive health, economic development and population stabilization. We therefore support programmes to improve the status of women.Reproductive health reduces poverty, empowers women and stabilizes population. We urge universal access to appropriate family planning services. This includes training for professionals and sex and relationships education.”

    Well, it’s either that or…..
    Why women destroy civilisations:

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: