Men take a break from combatting the Co-op fire, July 1952. (Lakes District Museum Society photo/Lakes District News)

Poison Creek to Boo Flats burned sometime in the late 1800s

The entire country threatened to go up in smoke

Wildfires have always posed a threat to residents of the Lakes District. Even before climate change and the mountain pine beetle turned this country into a tinderbox, fire was wreaking havoc on people’s lives.

The earliest recorded fire activity dates back to the nineteenth century. According to Barney Mulvany and the oral history of local Indigenous people, the entire valley from Poison Creek to Boo Flats burned sometime in the late 1800s.

The summer of 1922 was a bad year for wildfires, too. No rain fell, most of the creeks dried up, and hayfields withered in the unrelenting heat.

On June 3 of that year, two small boys found a packrat’s nest in an old shed near Decker Lake and decided to set it alight. The result was a conflagration that quickly spread north and east for several miles, and continued burning until the first snowfall.

The entire country threatened to go up in smoke. On June 26, a group of reluctant spark-chasers left Burns Lake to attend to another fire reportedly burning in the wilderness northwest of town. The party arrived in Palling so late in the evening that they had to wake the local hotel proprietor and Byron “Bun” Smith to arrange for supplies and horses. Smith and an Indigenous guide joined the expedition—which now consisted of nine men—and they set off in search of the elusive fire. After wandering in the wilderness for four days, they found it seven miles (11 km) from their starting point in Burns Lake.

By July, four hundred fires were burning in the Lakes District and tempers were short. Burns Lake’s Dominion Day celebration that year featured a baseball game, several horse races, and a plethora of street fights. Fueled by angst and hard liquor, most of the brawls started in the town’s hotels and quickly spread to the main drag, where combatants traded punches and wrestled in the dust. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to hit somebody. One local merchant got into an argument over the origin of a fire and became so incensed that he considered shooting his adversary. After giving the matter some thought, he changed his mind and shot up the downtown core instead.

Residents in the rural areas kept one eye on the forest and the other on a reliable water source. At Tchesinkut Lake, Margaret Gilgan and her children (including young Bill) watched a wildfire burn toward their home. She enlisted the aid of her neighbour, an Irish hard rock miner named Tom Kelly, and then took steps to protect the family’s assets. The children were sent to the lakeshore, after which Margaret hauled water in buckets to Kelly, who stood on the cabin roof and doused sparks. At times, the heat was so intense that his clothing caught fire.

The Depression years were, for the most part, hot and dry. In June 1930, a forest fire rolled through the Uncha Lake area. At the home of Shell Robinson, an early settler who also served as game warden, flames crept up a steep gulley and destroyed his house, stables, and hayshed before anyone could respond. Fire also razed the Taylor family’s barn, but volunteers saved the homes of Mr. and Mrs. C. Corliss and Mr. and Mrs. H. Melander.

Mrs. Gus Westburg saw the same fire moving toward a high bridge on the Uncha Lake road. Working alone with an axe and mattock, she managed to build a guard around the structure, then carried water to the site in a gasoline can with a handle made of haywire. She saved the bridge at the expense of her hands, which were painfully blistered. Ironically, her home burned to the ground in another fire three years later.

The year 1932 was much the same. The entire Lakes District, it seemed, was burning. By early summer, eight fires between Francois and Ootsa lakes threatened to merge into one—and another conflagration that extended from Colleymount to Owen Lake was sweeping northward over the height of land toward Rose Lake.

“Stands of valuable timber blazing in the fury of enormous forest fires that light the night with lurid glows, and all the Central Interior of British Columbia is threatened with destruction unless the dry weather conditions change,” reported Sidney Godwin’s Observer on June 16, 1932. “To date, no crews have been put to work, and the fires are increasing in magnitude from day to day. The whole Upper Nechako watershed is a mass of fires, and not only is the timber threatened but life and property are imperilled … . Ashes have been falling on Burns Lake for over a week, and now the sun gleams dully through the pall of smoke. With present dry conditions prevailing for two more weeks, very little valuable timber may remain and many settlements may be completely wiped out.”

The Burns Lake Board of Trade begged the government to take action. In a telegram sent to N. S. Lougheed, provincial minister of lands, the organization stated, “Fires burning whole countryside. Ootsa Lake, Danskin, Francois Lake threatened with complete devastation. Timber, farmsteads, homes may be absolute loss and Nechako watersheds may be denuded, causing floods in Fraser Valley. Villages along the line of Canadian National Railway also threatened. Urge immediate, energetic action by your department to avert catastrophe.”

Lougheed blamed the government’s slow response on financial constraints. He may, in part, have been correct; it was the height of the Depression, tax revenue was in short supply, and wildfire suppression was expensive. But his message couldn’t have been well-received.

Firefighting was also labour-intensive. In the era before machinery, manpower was the only defense against wildfire. Gin Saul was one of 150 residents hired to fight fire here in 1922. Each man was handed an axe and a shovel and told to give his all on the fire line for twenty-five cents per hour. The work was hot and dangerous, and often went on around the clock.

Because of the working conditions, finding enough men for the task wasn’t always easy. For much of the past century, the BC Forest Service took a page out of the Royal Navy’s playbook and pressed men into service.

“We did conscript people, able-bodied people, above a certain age,” said one former Forest Service employee. “I think it was between the ages of sixteen and sixty, and usually, we cleaned out the bars. One day, two cops went in the front door of a bar (looking for people to fight fire). Everybody bailed out the back door, and there waiting for them was the paddy wagon … . It was ‘a body, anybody’ back then.”

“If you weren’t working, they [members of the BC Forest Service] would give you something to do right quick,” Decker Lake resident Bob Saul said in 2021. “They got me three times. They’d collect all the young guys—and some of the older ones, too—for firefighting.”

The sight of a BC Forest Service vehicle in downtown Burns Lake on a hot summer’s day was enough to scatter a crowd. It got to the point where many of the region’s young men made themselves scarce at the first sign of smoke, and those left behind went to great lengths to avoid the press gangs.

“One time, I was at Larry’s Service downtown,” Bob continued. “There was [sic] always two or three bystanders hanging around, and while I had a job, there was another young guy there who didn’t. In the afternoon, the forestry vehicle pulled up, and this other guy who wasn’t working went in and crawled up behind some oil cans (to avoid detection). People nodded toward the back room, and eventually, the forest service guy got the hint and went back there. He tugged the young guy out by his pant legs and took him off to fight fire.”

The BC Forest Service was still using questionable recruitment tactics in August 1952 when lightning ignited what was then one of this area’s largest wildfires. Smoke from the Co-op fire north of Tintagel billowed eight thousand feet into the air, and was visible as far away as Prince George. At night, people living in Fraser Lake could see the fire’s glow.

Forest Service employees, assisted by police, rounded up two hundred men and seven bulldozers to build fireguards, but the bush was tinder-dry, and the blaze moved so quickly that men and equipment often found themselves facing a hundred-foot wall of flame. On several occasions, firefighters had to down tools and run for their lives.

Fred Roe of Tchesinkut Lake was operating a bulldozer on the fire line when a burning tree fell across his machine and severed its hydraulic lines. He suffered serious burns and several broken ribs, but survived.

“We had this big fire out here at Tintagel,” he recalled thirty years after the event. “They sent me out there with a Cat, no canopy on, and a tree fell over, and the Cat burned up. Caved my ribs in, but I stood that.”

Not everyone was so lucky. Harold Gordon of Burns Lake and nearly a dozen other men were building guard when a crown fire cut off their escape route. Gordon’s colleagues managed to flee, but he did not.

Another conscript, a man known only as H. Hunter, also went missing during the event. His body was never recovered, which led government officials to speculate that he had simply walked away from the job.

“There is an opinion,” stated the Review on August 21, 1952, “that he did not like firefighting and ‘caught a rattler’ [freight train] for parts unknown.”

Many of the men might have been unwilling firefighters, but they fought like tigers. By August 19, after destroying sixty thousand acres of timber and the Stearns family sawmill, the Co-op fire was under control.

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

There have been dozens of fires in the Lakes District since 1952, many of them more destructive. Thanks to climate change, the term “fire season” has new meaning, and summers are no longer carefree.

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