The devastating impact of local fires over the years


It is one of the most unnerving alarms people can hear.

Fire can spread very rapidly and with devastating effects, both in terms of human life and property. Wildfires are particularly fearsome as they can cover very large areas and impact thousands of lives.

History is full of stories about the tragedies of fire.

Devastating wildfires are frequent occurrences in such places as Southern California and Australia. Recent events, such as the terrible blaze at Slave Lake in 2011 and the very recent massive wildfire at Fort McMurray/Wood Buffalo, are harsh reminders that Alberta is not immune to these tragedies.

Enormous fires have swept across Alberta since time immemorial. Particularly during warm dry spring weather, the First Nations kept an ever constant watch on the horizon for ominous billows of smoke, or the frightening red glow of an ongoing fire. If there was a wind, these blazes could sweep forward at an astonishing speed.

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

As with the First Nations, there was very little the early settlers could do to stop or control fires once they got started. Often the only defense was to flee for the hope-for safety of nearby sloughs, lakes, creeks and/or rivers.

However, because farmers could not move their buildings and crops out of the way, they would plow wide fireguards around their homes, barns and pastures. Unfortunately, whirlwinds of flame frequently jumped across these barriers.

For those living in more forested areas, trees and brush would be cleared around the settlers’ holdings.

Again, major fires often easily leaped over the gaps.

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

Usually, all that could be done, once the fire was upon people, was to try and drench the ground and any structures with whatever water was at hand. More often, people desperately tried to beat back the flames and dampen any embers with pieces of leather, blankets or sacks.

Some of the early prairie and forest fires were phenomenally large.

In late April 1892, a huge series of fires swept northward from Gleichen, east of Calgary, to Red Deer. People could see the approaching blazes for days. Only the strenuous efforts of the local residents prevented the fires from consuming the new hamlet of Red Deer. All that blocked the further advance of the fire was the Red Deer River.

In 1895, a terrific fire broke out near Ponoka.

Within a few hours it had roared southeastwards to the shores of Buffalo Lake. In 1896, a prairie fire near Innisfail raged for four days and blackened over 1,000 sq. km. of land.

The spring of 1910 was also another devastating time for fires.

In April, huge blazes swept across the districts east of Red Deer. Both St. Paul’s Anglican Church and the Hillsdown School were destroyed by these fires. There were also enormous fires west of Red Deer. The Poplar Ridge School was only saved by the frantic efforts of local settlers to beat back the flames. The timber in the Lobstick Valley, near Leslieville, was wiped out in one big blaze.

The devastation of fires extended into the summer months. A major timber fire broke out in the Red Deer 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 aftermaths of these fires were also terrible times. For days or even weeks afterwards, there was the danger that a smoldering ember could flare up and cause a new blaze. The fires destroyed the habitat for game and the pasture for livestock.

Thus, both people and animals often found themselves painfully short of food.

Because of the devastation that wildfires and prairie fires caused, the punishments for both deliberately and accidentally setting fires were often very severe.

A moment’s carelessness could literally threaten a whole district and the lives of a great many people.

It is not surprising that many of the first forms of local government in Central Alberta were statute labour and fire districts, established for the control and prevention of fires.

It was the decision of the Red Deer Board of Trade and Red Deer Agricultural Society in April 1894 to investigate the possibilities of forming a local statute labour and fire district which contributed to Red Deer’s incorporation as a village on June 14th, 1894.