Canada — The beginning of what some people thought was the end of the world started on June 2, 1950, with a small wildfire in the northeast corner of British Columbia.
It had been an exceptionally hot spring and forest fire managers were too busy with other fires in B.C., Alberta and the southern Yukon to do anything about a blaze that was remote and so far away from human settlement. The policy back then was to ignore fires that were 15 kilometres away from roads or human settlements.
Within a few days, though, the fire crossed into Alberta’s Chinchaga wild lands. Fuelled by a tinder dry forest that seemingly went on forever, the relatively small blaze developed into a wildfire of such monstrous proportions that the thickness of the smoke led some people in Ontario to believe that an atomic bomb had exploded and that the western world was at war with Russia.
Aircraft were grounded. Farmers milked their cows earlier, chickens went to roost and the U.S. air force postponed a search for a missing plane.
The blaze burned for 222 days and torched a stretch of forest that was 245 kilometres long. It was and still is the biggest forest fire to hit Canada in modern times.
More than 14,000 square kilometres of forest went up in flames. Smoke from the fire could be detected as far away as Great Britain and Holland. The heat was so intense in spots that it changed the chemistry of the soil to the point where trees could not regenerate.
“Anyone who witnessed it, as I did, the great smoke pall of September 24 to 30, 1950 can never forget the eeriness of the occurrence and the extraordinary gloom,” Canadian astronomer Helen Swayer Hogg wrote in The Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada 15 years later.
“The sun was turned to various shades of blue or violet over much of the eastern part of the continent.” The Globe and Mail and Toronto Star newspapers wrote articles and published illustrations explaining why the city of Toronto had to turn on the street lights at midday.
It was not an alien invasion as some people feared. Nor was it an eclipse of the sun, as others believed. But in places such as Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Fort Erie and New York, it was so dark that the lights at baseball stadiums had to be turned on to illuminate mid-afternoon ball games.
An article in the New York Times quoted one woman who told how her rooster was so confused it crowed at 4 p.m., thinking it was dawn.
Another article in a Jamestown, N.Y., paper described how chickens that had spread out for their midday foraging “suddenly realized they were being caught by darkness, so they scurried back across the cow yard in more than usual earnest, their heads moving in delayed jerks.”
One elderly man in the town of Busti in New York State was so frazzled when a relative went in to check on him, he was shaking like a leaf. “Do you think this is the end of the world?” he asked.
“Everyone remembers what he was doing when he heard that President Kennedy had been shot, that Pearl Harbor was bombed or that either world war had ended,” local historian Norman Carlson wrote in the Jamestown Post Journal.
“So too everyone my age and older remembers another event: a Sunday afternoon in 1950 when the sun ceased to give her light and our primitive fears of darkness, mortality and powerlessness rose at least near enough to the surface to etch a lasting trace that belied our outward calm.”
Peter Murphy, the former dean of forestry at the University of Alberta, was working on a ranch outside of Reno, Nev., at the time. He recalls newspapers in California writing about the great fire north of the border.
Murphy and Cordy Tymstra, the supervisor of the Wildfire Science and Research Unit at Alberta Sustainable Resources, have written scientific papers on the event.
“It’s a classic example of what a fire can do if it’s left on its own,” says Murphy. “It should serve to remind us that when it comes to forest fires, we can be complacent, but only at our peril.”
Having been associated with the Alberta Forest Service for good part of his long career, Murphy may be biased in saying that the province has one of the best forest fire management systems in the world.
But he believes that the system is going to have to find ways of adapting to the new reality that is evolving in the boreal forest.
Climate models suggest we are going to see hotter temperatures, more lightning strikes and fires similar to the one at Slave Lake this week that move quickly.
Murphy is not alone in speculating that firefighters are already seeing blazes that are hotter, moving faster and increasingly behaving in chaotic and unpredictable ways.
Some recent fires in Alberta have been so hot they created their own weather, producing thunderstorms and lightning that in some cases started other fires.
Others, such as the one at Slave Lake this week, burn in a way in which they completely torch one stand of trees or houses and leave another row nearby intact.
This is not all that unusual, says Mike Flannigan, a professor with the Department of Renewable Resources at the University of Alberta and a senior research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service.
“Imagine if you will a fire moving like a corkscrew set on its side. On one side you have this updraft that intensifies the fire and draws the flames up into the crowns of the trees.
“On the other side, you can have a downdraft that pushes the fire away from that area. The result is that one can have trees/buildings in the updraft blackened, while immediately adjacent trees that were in the downdraft are left green and unharmed.”
Like Murphy, Flannigan believes that the future could be a challenging one for firefighters if we don’t find new ways of managing our forests.