Wildfires have been a problem in western Canada for generations

Threats of fire continued long after agricultural settlement commenced in the 1880s and 1890s

Tragically, this year has been marked again by a series of wildfires, particularly in British Columbia. These blazes have caused a lot of damage, destroyed homes and businesses, and resulted in large-scale evacuations.

While some years are worse than others, wildfires have been a significant problem in western Canada for generations. John Palliser visited the Red Deer area during a major drought in the summer of 1858.

He reported that the district was a scene of ‘black desolation’ as enormous fires had swept across the valley. Those blazes had consumed not only the expanses of grassland, but also the stands of poplar and spruce, which had stood along the river, the creeks and nearby lakes.

In the summer of 1883, Thomas Kains led a party of surveyors in the Red Deer area. He wrote that their work was often hampered by the dense smoke from the fires raging in the wooded districts to the west. In fact, he reported that, at times, it was difficult to make out the survey rods through the smoke, even though the surveyors were standing only a relatively short distance apart.

The threats of fire continued long after agricultural settlement commenced in the 1880s and 1890s.

There was very little that the early settlers could do to stop or control the fires once they got started.

They could take some preventative measures such as clearing and plowing wide fireguards around their homes, barns and pastures. Buckets of water along with pieces of leather, blankets and sacks were kept on hand to try and beat back any embers that drifted into the farmyards and onto roofs.

However, if the fires leapt across these fireguards, or if the embers became too numerous to extinguish, the only course of action left was to flee for the hoped-for safety of nearby sloughs, lakes, creeks and/or rivers.

Crown fires were particularly terrifying as the blazes would sweep across the tree tops and then burn downwards,

In order to help with fire control and suppression, many of the first forms of local government in Central Alberta were statute labour and fire districts.

These local authorities could require settlers to build roads and create community fireguards. Their time and labour would then be credited against their property taxes.

The legal system also provided significant support. The punishments for both deliberately and accidentally setting fires were severe. Huge fines could be levied by the local magistrates. If the fire was very large and destructive, people could be, and often were, sent to jail.

Nevertheless, fires remained a serious problem well into the twentieth century. The year 1910 was one example of a bad year.

Homes and farms were lost in huge blazes that swept across the Pine Lake, Hillsdown/Valley Centre and Poplar Ridge districts. A great deal of timber in the Lobstick Valley, near Leslieville, was destroyed in a large forest fire.

During the summer of 1910, a major time fire broke out in the Red Dee River Canyon, a few kilometres east of the City. With little means to control it, the fire burned for almost two weeks. Most of the trees along the west bank of the river were wiped out.

The year of 1919 was another bad one. A huge fire raged by Rocky Mountain House. The annual Red Deer Fair was plagued by heavy amounts of smoke. Spectators in the grandstand soon found themselves covered in ash.

The Fair Board put their best possible spin on the conditions. They stated that the smoky air helped to, “Cut off the full glare of the hot July sun.”

Ultimately, their upbeat attitude seemed rewarded. With the very warm and dry weather, the crowds at the Fair turned out to be some of the best on record.