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A Vast Smoke – Forest Fires Disrupt Navigation and Communication – Reports from Pioneer Times, Including the Drought of 1868

August 15, 2015

In the summer of 2015 residents of the Lower Mainland have experienced drought conditions and the smoky atmosphere that was once an annual occurrence in these parts. The phenomenon often persisted into late autumn. Here is a sampling of such events as recorded by those who were there, including an account of the year 1868, said to have been the worst for drought, fires and smoke, and when travel and communication between towns was cut off for weeks at a time, except for those brave enough to take to trail or canoe.


Clearing Fires at South Westminster, c 1890. From Frances E. Herring, Canadian Camp Life.

Forest Fires on the Brown Estate & Clearing Fires at South Westminster

In the first week of September 1883 the British Colonist newspaper of Victoria, Vancouver Island, reported:

“That $20,000 worth of timber on the estate of the late Ebenezer Brown, opposite New Westminster, has been destroyed by fire during the past month.”

Brown had died in June, and the item garnered a timely reply from his son-in-law.

“The E Brown Estate and Forest Fires New Westminster, Sept. 10.
To the Editor: I notice that in your issue for Sunday, it is stated that twenty thousand dollars worth of timber has been destroyed on the Brown estate. I am happy to be able to contradict this. The green timber opposite New Westminster has escaped scatchless and still remains one of the most valuable sections in the province. Owing to its exceptional position it may be considered safe from forest fires.  – JSK De Knevett, Executor of E Brown, deceased.”

The reason for De Knevett’s confidence is not clear. However,every summer since, the newspapers carried periodic reports of bush fires and smoke south of the Fraser River. These had mostly to do with settlement and development. The clearings were not without risk, as fires could easily get out of hand, as happened to JW Stein, while clearing his property in May 1888, apparently possessed of the same faith as Mr De Knevett.

“A man named Stein, of Brownsville, set out a clearing fire some days ago on his property at the bottom of the hill near the Yale Road. Mr L F Bonson had 3, 000 fence rails cut and lying ready for removal at the top of the hill, and he warned Stein to be careful not to allow the fire to spread in that direction. Stein replied that there was not the slightest danger. This morning the fire spread to where the rails were lying and the whole lot were consumed.”

In the sweltering summer of 1889, in smoke-filled rooms at the Colonial Hotel at New Westminster, heavy bargaining between rival railway interests and civic officials was determining the fate of the railroad to the USA boundary. Meanwhile, construction of the railway right-of-way had begun on the opposite side of the river, sparking subdivisions and property improvement as local land speculators espied the “main chance.”
August, 1889:

“The clearing and burning off in the vicinity of Brownsville goes on unceasingly and a large surface will soon be ready for the site of the other half of New Westminster.”

As settlement progressed burning of brush and accidental fires occurred in each dry season, with the effects felt in the city and suburbs.

July, 1891:

“The fires on the bush covered hills surrounding New Westminster are assuming dangerous proportions and do not render the stifling air any more bearable in the city.”

August, 1895:

“Forest fires have been raging in South Westminster for three days, threatening the destruction of many houses. Most of the time the smoke covers the Mainland like a dense fog, and the sun is a dark red.”

Woods on Fire an Annual Event

The burning of the forests has been an annual event in this region since time immemorial,  and from the first European immigrants we have a written record of such occurrences.

John Work, in the Fraser River at Fort Langley, September 1835:

“The woods on both sides of the river are all on fire, which no doubt is in part the cause of the prevalent fogs we have experienced for some time back.”

The United States Coast Pilot for the Strait of Juan De Fuca issued the following caution in its sailing directions

“During dry summers the Indians and settlers set fire to the forests in every direction, and the country soon becomes enveloped in a vast smoke that lasts for two or three months. At such times it is frequently impossible to make out the shore at half a mile distance. The strong westerly winds coming up the strait disperse it for a while, but only to fan the fires, and give them renewed force and activity.”

The Drought of 1868 – The Year the Northwest Burned

Speaking of forest fires and the destruction of timber in British Columbia, early settler William Shannon, also a qualified timber expert, singled out the year 1868 as the most extreme.

“We had a great drought, which commenced early in April and extended into November. . .
The great fire that raged on this coast started in Oregon some time in the month of July and extended through Washington and up into British Columbia. It ran for hundreds of miles and burned timber high up on the mountains. . .
the fire raged along the coast up to Alaska; it also burned as far north as the northern limits of British Columbia, although there can be no connection traced between these various fires.”

“No fire that has occurred, either before or since was ever known to destroy so much valuable timber. . .”

The effect on the daily life of settlers was pronounced:

“In that memorable year, the smoke was so dense that the people living along the coast had to use artificial light the whole day, as they never saw the sun for over two months, and all communication by water was stopped for a time, as it was impossible to see any distance.”

Shannon exaggerates only a trifle. His assessment is confirmed by reports from Washington State, where the fires were if anything, more prevalent, and more destructive, owing to the greater density of settlement in forested areas.

“Of the many forest fires that swept Whatcom County in the memory of the whites, that of 1868 was the king holocaust of all…Thirty years afterward, during the March winds, the monster fir snags regularly crashed to the ground with the thudding roar of siege artillery. Forty years afterward the shingle mills yet were feeding on the fire-killed cedar. Eighty-three years afterward, remnants of stumps and a few logs, left by the great fire, are still visible in several sections of the country.” -Lelah Jackson Edson, The Fourth Corner – Highlights from the early Northwest.

American opinion differed from that of Wm Shannon only as to the where the fires first started: “. . . the fire originated in British Columbia and traveled almost to the Columbia River.”

“It came with a heavy north wind during the night. Next morning we could hear trees falling every few seconds – it sounded like a battle….This one left such a pall of smoke it was impossible to travel by water for days.” -Hugh Eldrige

Snows Above, Fires Below: The First Ascent of Mount Baker

On August 7th, 1868,  ET Coleman, one of a group of climbers attempting to climb Mount Baker, was just setting out from Bellingham Bay, heading up the Lummi River.

“[It] appeared the fates had combined to render our journey interesting, for the spectacle that burst upon our view that night was grand in the extreme. For miles around the forests were on fire.
No illumination ever kindled for crowning of king or news of victory could be more brilliant. From numberless pines the coruscations darted up to heaven, their refulgence reflected in the gleaming waters.”

On reaching the summit on Mount Baker – the first recorded ascent – Coleman and party found the view of surrounding valleys obscured by smoke, although it did not lessen the elation felt by the climbers.

“The scene was grand in the nakedness of its desolation. The white surface of snow was unrelieved by a single rock. The forests had been on fire for weeks, and a dense pall of smoke veiled the surrounding scenery from our view. It lay like a reddish cloud beneath us. We felt cut off from the world we had left. Overhead the sun poured down his bright beams from a sky which formed a dome of purplish blue, unsullied by a cloud. We felt at heaven’s gate, and in the immediate presence of the Almighty.”

Months of Fire and Smoke in 1868 – Further Reports

New Westminster, August 08 –

“The weather continues warm and dry, and judging from the amount of smoke in the atmosphere, the forest and prairie fires must be doing their annual work. Gardens and root crops on high ground begin to show signs of languishing from want of rain, but we believe the farmers do not wish for rain just yet. Some do, but then it is hard to suit everybody.”

August 26 –

“Forest Fires – The unusually dry season through which we have been passing has very naturally resulted in extensive and destructive fires in the forests. Considerable quantities of cord wood have…been destroyed in the forest behind the city, and … many thousand dollars’ worth of standing trees have been rendered valueless. In former times the town was sometimes threatened by these fires, but now the forest has retreated before the woodman’s axe to a safe distance.”

August 29 –

“Everywhere in this district the crops are turning out remarkably well.. . Altogether the season has been a very fine one, and the farmers are everywhere in excellent spirits, in so far as the year’s yield is concerned.”

Barkerville, Cariboo, September 4 –

“Nearly all the small creeks of the Fraser River have dried up by reason of the hot weather and the prevailing drought.”

September 09 –

“The recent rains appear to have most effectually checked, if not completely extinguished, the fires which have been raging in the forest with such fury of late, and which must have destroyed timber to an enormous value. . . . The smoke caused by these fires completely eclipsed the sun for several days, hanging like a dense fog over the city. It is stated that down the coast, as far as the Columbia river, fires have prevailed in the forest.”

On Sept 15, the steamer Onward arrived down from Yale, reporting fires “all over” between that place and New Westminster and bringing news from the Cariboo that “the drought continues and mining is almost at a stand for want of water.”

Main Event – The Barkerville Fire

On the 16th of September the Cariboo gold-mining city of Barkerville, BC was reduced to ashes by a devastating fire. Although not burned out by wild fires, the tinder dry condition of the wood frame buildings was said to have been a factor in the rapid destruction of the town.
Sparks first appeared on the roof of the Fashion Saloon at about 2pm and by dinner time there was but one building left standing on the site of a town once said to be the largest north of San Francisco.
According to resident Peter Anderson, failure to halt the conflagration was at least partly attributable to the drought.

“The season has been very dry, and the wardens failed to have the reservoir back of the town finished. It has been long talked about, and it would have stopped the fire; but as we had no water, the flames spread furiously from building to building, and many who were near when the fire broke out were glad to escape without saving anything.”

Officials and residents of New Westminster, indeed the entire outside world, would remain ignorant of this Barkerville fire disaster for 5 days, being shut out of communication with the upper country.

The Mainland also lost touch with Victoria, the steamer Enterprise failing to make the crossing from Victoria due to poor visibility.

A steamer captain explained that in fog, navigation was aided by sounding the whistle and listening for the echo off the shore. This did not work in smoke making such conditions doubly hazardous.

On the 19th the Columbian newspaper pondered the city’s insularity:

“During the last two days a perfect cloud of mingled smoke and fog has enveloped the town and surrounding country, extending no one knows how far. It is to say the least decidedly unpleasant and the wish for rain is universal.”

The editor could but speculate as to distant happenings:

“The [Yale] convention [to promote union with Canada] was still in session at latest accounts, but as the wires are down, and navigation is stopped by the dense smoke of the forest fires, which overhangs the river, we are unable to lay a report of its proceedings before our readers.”

Reports from nearby came in to New Westminster  with greater regularity, each settler from the valley pressed to fill the columns.

“Along both banks of the river in the neighborhood of Langley, the forest fires have been raging with terrible violence. Several of the settlers have lost all or nearly all their crop of hay, and a number of fences have been destroyed. . . little or no damage has been done to buildings. Telegraphic communication with the upper country is … completely cut off, as the line runs right through the burning woods.”

News of the great Barkerville fire was on its way, passed like a baton between various modes of communication and finally reached New Westminster on the 21st.

“The intelligence was carried by Express messenger to Quesnellemouth, from thence telegraphed to Yale, and was conveyed to New Westminster by the steamer Onward on Sunday . . .the telegraph in Cariboo and other sections being out of working order on account of the forest fires raging throughout various portions of the country.”

With the hazardous conditions putting a halt to navigation, both on the river and along the coast, Governor Seymour offered to get the news to Victoria by putting his own vessel, the steam yacht Leviathan, at the disposal of the telegraph company. This generous offer was accepted and with a run across the Strait that was “attended by much danger and difficulty, by reason of the dense fog prevailing,”  Leviathan reached Victoria on the 22nd.

From Victoria, news of the Barkerville fire was flashed by telegraph key across to Washington State, landing on front pages of newspapers in the outside world the following day.

A Greater Calamity? Drought Conditions Persist – Fires Unabated

In Whatcom County, whence winds carried clouds of smoke into British Columbia, the fires continued unabated.

“The whole country is afire; such a continuation of dense fogs the oldest inhabitants had not seen before.” -Diary of Sheriff James Kavanaugh, Sept 23, 1868.

Those miners still remaining at the gold fields at the end of September saw the prospects of any fall mining activity evaporating with last drops of water from the creeks.

“It is now as hot and dry as it was at any time in August.”

Without rain there was no chance to resume mining operations before cold weather set in. The Sentinel newspaper rather bleakly declared that:

“the present spell of protracted dry weather is a greater calamity to Cariboo and the colony generally than was the late disastrous fire.”

News from below was at best intermittent. Steamer traffic was interrupted and telegraphic communication cut off by the fires and smoke in the Fraser Valley.

The opening of the agricultural Exhibition at New Westminster was postponed “owing to the density of the fog” and the inability of farmers to reach town.

When the judging of produce came off, it was Sam Herring, of Herring’s Ranch, opposite the city, who gathered in a bushel of prizes, 32 in all.

Whereas farmers in the Fraser Valley suffered from the harsh fires and smoke, damages were generally confined to hay and fencing, and some crops, but with no losses to dwellings and buildings. One report stated that the “Indians have had considerable quantities of potatoes destroyed by fire.”  Most crops had been ready up to three weeks early this year.

It was a different story in south of the border.

In neighboring Whatcom County the fires swept through settled districts destroying houses, barns, and sawmills.

The blaze in Washington State presented “a magnificent sight” to spectators on Vancouver Island, who watched from a safe vantage point the lighting up of the night sky.

Shut Out or Shut In – Communication Cut Off In British Columbia

In early October there was some respite from the stifling atmosphere as

“…a gentle and almost balmy breeze has been blowing from the south and has in great measure cleared away the smoke and fog, and yesterday the sun shone forth.”

However, the relief was short-lived and a grey veil again descended over the Royal City.

The local newspaper could only reiterate an apology for its thin copy.

“No Steamers and No News.
We are completely shut out, or shut in, as you like it. The fires in wood and prairie have suspended telegraphic communication, and the smoke from these fires has united with the fog in forming an impenetrable cloud which renders navigation difficult if not impossible. Neither of the steamers arrived yesterday. . . . Under these circumstances we trust our readers will forgive our meagre and uninteresting appearance this morning.”

By the middle of October the situation, had it not been so far, was “becoming serious,” and the excuse for lack of news besetting and frustrating.

“This fog question waxeth somewhat serious. . . . Very great inconvenience is felt even in the lower country from the interruption of regular communication; and what makes matters worse, the telegraph line refuses to work, the extensive fires in the forest having destroyed much of it.”

In the absence of steamers, a party of politicians — delegates to a convention at Yale to promote BC’s entry into Confederation — was forced to take passage by canoe, descending the Fraser as in days of old.

“The atmosphere was thick with smoke and they were obliged to grope their way down along the shore…”

Conditions were no better at New Westminster’s outer port:

“Business at the Inlet, as everywhere else, is fogbound.”

Ships could neither enter nor leave the harbor through the First Narrows.

Up the north coast as far as Alaska, temperatures were reported to have been extremely mild during June, July and August. There were “fires raging in the timber” and “dense fogs and smoke along the coasts.”

On the 22nd of October the steamship Del Norte was en route from Nanaimo to Victoria, and in trying to escape the dense fog in Poirier Pass, hit a reef and was wrecked.

One early industry employed smoke, under controlled conditions, to cure fish. First nations harvesters were joined by canneryman James Symes, who produced kippered salmon, smoked oolichans and sturgeon. Wags suggested that in these days the fish was smoked before landing in the boat.

A break occurred in the third week of October, when the weather moderated to ” extremely mild, with summer-like showers.”
On the 25th of October the first snowfall of the season blanketed the Cariboo in white and banished at last the extended summer weather.

On the Lower Mainland in the first week of November, rain was falling and the temperature was “very mild and pleasant.”
Conditions were back to normal — almost:

“The telegraph line between here and Yale, which has been down for many weeks on account of the fires, was up and working on Monday, but went down again from some cause or another, yesterday.”

Travel through forest fires by trail and rail – Excerpts from Personal Accounts

Through the Cascade Mountains by Trail

As Susan Allison journeyed by trail from the Similkameen to Hope in August 1869, accompanied by her husband and carrying a one month old baby in a birchbark basket, she encountered bush fire and dense smoke.

Susan Allison, 1869, from A pioneer gentlewoman in British Columbia.

“Near Skagit we met a man on horseback who stopped to speak with us. He said, ‘Turn back while you can, no one can get through that fire, the Skagit is boiling.’ But as the smoke and fire behind us looked far worse, we told him we would try it, and he had better hurry if he wanted to get through. So we parted. When we got to the Skagit we found the timber on both sides of the creek (which here is smaller) on fire.The rocks were red hot and the water was boiling, or at any rate it seemed like it. We dared not stop but hurried on thinking to get out of it. When we reached the Cedars, Pony and the other two horses had to be blinded.The whole forest seemed to be on fire and the heat was almost unbearable.The smoke was suffocating and we kept a blanket wrapped around little Edgar’s basket. To add to our misery a huge cedar crashed across the trail. I held the three horses and baby while my husband tore the bark from some cedars lying near and made a bridge on to the top of the cedar, over one side and down on the other, then led Nelly and Pony over this bridge with the third horse. The bridge caught fire and his leg was badly burned, but we did get over, and a little farther got beyond the fire.”
Through the Cascades by Rail.

Mrs Hugh Fraser, Washington State, around 1900, from Seven Years on the Pacific Slope.

“Leaving Seattle at eight P.M., I expected to arrive at the railway terminus at two in the morning, but as a matter of fact we did not reach it till after four, the August time-table having omitted to take account of the forest fires which were raging at intervals along the road. Hot as the night was, it was necessary to keep all the windows closed, and the sight of tract after tract of tall pines close to the line, flaming wildly, or writhing in what looked like human agony, in the last red glow of destruction, was rather terrifying. We had to go slowly sometimes, sometimes stop altogether, while the men went forward and cleared the rails of some wreck of burning timber that had fallen across them. Sometimes the reek of smoke was so thick that nothing else was to be seen till red tongues of flame leapt through and lit up the dark figures of men swinging axes and crowbars against the glare. Yet there was not the least excitement. My fellow-travellers scarcely glanced towards the windows, and both officials and axe-men had the calm, weary expression of tackling a tiresome job with which they were only to familiar.
So I kept silence, learning the first lesson of the Far West, the country of great silences, where it is a point of honor never to express surprise or fear.”


The author Frances E Herring and the pioneer settler Sam Herring are unrelated.

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