Forestry Ink: The Chinchaga firestorm

Jim Hilton returns with his regular column

Last week Barry Jenkins introduced me to the book The Chinchaga Firestorm by Cordy Tymstra. Since it deals mostly with wild fires in the Canadian northern boreal forests, it is not a surprise that I have not heard of it before like so many things that get ignored in the far north.

In my opinion, this 227 page book published in 2015 is a must-read for anyone interested in the history and impact of large forest fires in Canada. If you can’t get the book, there is a good summary on the internet

The Chinchaga fire, also known as the Wisp fire and Fire 19 burned in northern B.C. and Alberta in the summer and early fall of 1950. With a final size between 1,400,000 hectares and 1,700,000 hectares, it is the single largest recorded fire in North American history. The blaze started on 1 June 1950 and continued to burn throughout the summer and early fall until the end of October. The fire was believed to be man caused with the ignition point north of Fort Saint John and moved north-eastward nearly to Keg River Alberta.

Not only was this a big fire but it resulted in many memorable events around the northern hemisphere as described in Tymstra’s book. The fire was allowed to burn freely, a result of local forest management policy and the lack of settlements in the region. The Chinchaga fire produced large amounts of smoke, creating the 1950 Great Smoke Pall, which was observed across eastern North America and Europe. As the existence of the massive fire was not well-publicized, and the smoke was mostly in the upper atmosphere and could not be smelled, there was much speculation about the atmospheric haze and its provenance.

The Chinchaga firestorm’s “historic smoke pall” caused “observations of blue suns and moons in the United States and Europe.”

While the northern forests, which are interspersed with muskeg, are not as productive as those farther south, there is still plenty of biomass for large wildfires especially when conditions are right.

As was the case with the B.C. mega fires in 2017 and 2018 the burn was influenced by weather patterns. The Chinchaga fire had 5 distinct runs of rapid spread and high intensity, interspersed with periods of low activity. A series of high pressure systems over the summer allowed a build-up of heat and dry air, reducing the moisture levels in the forest fuels. The breakdowns of these systems produced the high north easterly winds that drove the runs.

The final run in September 1950 was the most destruction and amounted to one-third of the total burned area.

It finally was put out by cooler weather and rain in late October, as it approached Keg River in the Whispering River area (hence one of its names Whisp Fire).

The fires early this year near High Level, Alta., makes the Chinchaga fire of particular significance since it had a number of stops and starts. The author has a 10 page bibliography which demonstrates the level of detail covered in the book — which makes for a good wildfire resource and some very interesting reading.

Jim Hilton is a professional agrologist and forester who has lived and worked in the Cariboo-Chilcotin for the past 40 years. Now retired, Hilton still volunteers his skills with local community forests organizations.

READ MORE: Saw filers are critical for forestry industry

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