The firestorm that swept North America

The flames were out of control in 1908, but not as out of control as the headlines

Top: Victoria Avenue Fernie

Jim Cameron

To say that Sat. Aug. 1 1908 was not a good day for the town of Fernie would be an understatement. To say that the reports across North America of the events of that day were overstated would be an understatement of large proportion.

What exactly happened? Let’s start by checking the newspapers.

On Aug. 2, a Los Angeles Herald article read: “The entire town of Fernie, B.C., has been destroyed by fire. News has been received at Cranbrook to forward all available provisions. Relief trains have been started with doctors, nurses and food on board. A neglected bush fire is the cause of the calamity. Fires are raging between Cranbrook and Crow’s Nest. A report is received from Hosmer that the Hosmer Lumber Company’s mill was on fire and that 6 families are cut off by the blaze. All men available have been called out to fight the flames.”

In terms of the facts, the newspapers of North America should have left it right there. Reports that followed told an entirely different tale, in fact, a whole lot of different tale.

The front page headlines (and there were many) across the continent cried out in alarm: MILLIONS ARE LOST IN GIGANTIC FIRE (Honolulu Bulletin), HUNDREDS PERISH IN GREATEST CONFLAGURATION IN CANADA’S HISTORY (Los Angeles Herald), 170 KILLED AND 6,000 MADE HOMELESS (New York Evening World), THREE TOWNS SHARE FERNIE’S FATE (New York Sun), CROW’S NEST COUNTRY A SEETHING FURNACE (Arizona Republican), WESTERN CANADA IS FIRE SWEPT (Warren Sheaf, Minn.), 500 DEAD 10,000 HOMELESS $20,000,000.00 LOST IN FLAMES (San Francisco Call), and on and on.

The Spokane Spokesman Review and the Phoenix Republican called it the greatest disaster since the San Francisco fire; the Alexandria Virginia Gazette placed it second.

One town destroyed, three towns destroyed, six towns, the entire Kootenay, Kootenai, Kootena Valley. Fernie flattened. Michel flattened, Sparwood, Sharwood, Cokado, Elko, Coal Creek, Hosmer, Posmer, Homer and Morrissey all gone. The mysterious, non-existent towns of Olson, Wardrop and Woodtown completely wiped out.

The Salt Lake Herald claimed 70 dead, San Francisco 125, the Albuquerque Citizen 170 fatalities. Honolulu estimated 200 and the Spokane Press 700. The New York Sun hit the bell with estimates of 800 to 900. Mr. Forrester, his wife and 30 men trapped while fighting to save the Sparwood Lumber Co., make that logging camp No. 4. Make that sixty men and four women.

Men died trying to save the Great Northern Railway bridge at Michel, men died trying to save their homes, four drunkards were left to burn in the Waldorf Hotel, one woman died of fear, an old lady wrapped in a wet blanket and abandoned by her son and his family to die in her yard, a woman dead and quickly buried by neighbours in her garden as the flames approached. Brave firemen extinguished in great numbers, fighting to the end.

From Los Angeles: “THE AIR ITSELF IS AFIRE. – Bodies recovered burned beyond recognition. In scores of instances flesh has been burned to a crisp. It is probable many human beings have been reduced to ashes.”

All railway bridges, tracks and rolling stock destroyed. Nothing left in Fernie but six shacks and a coal mine office. Two coal mine offices, the Trites – Fikes – Woods warehouse, 10 cottages, 6 residences, 25 houses and a railway car. Fernie is still burning. Part of Fernie is safe. Absolutely nothing is left. The Fort Steele Brewery was the first to go.

The fire started at the P.Burns Meat Market when a flaming piece of wood flew into town. A 70-foot long building rose into the air from the heat and landed in the middle of Main Street.

“The Hosmer dynamite magazine blown up by committee when it became certain the town was in the path of the flames,” declared the Bemidji (Minnesota) Daily Pioneer. “One man killed as the massive explosion tore a great hole in the mountain side and shook the country for 20 miles.”

The people are trapped, the people are escaping. Thousands have escaped and are camped on a small prairie surrounded by smoke and flames, living in huts made of brush and blankets. Premier Campbell arrived at Michel on a railway handcar carrying three badly burned men. Dead bodies of several little girls found in different parts of the city. Men screaming and women hysterical. Women screaming and men hysterical.

How did it start, this firestorm of epic proportions racing across the mountains and valleys of western Canada? A carelessly discarded match, rampaging forest fires or worse still — conspiracy theorists take note — set deliberately by the Black Hand, that subversive Italian crime organization bent on extortion and, in Fernie, bent on releasing five of their members from the local jail by starting fires in three different locations in order to create a diversion allowing them to spring their comrades.

Fernie requests Cranbrook to send as many guns and leg irons as possible. A special train carrying weapons is on its way. So sayeth San Francisco, New York and Albuquerque. And that was just the tip of the flaming iceberg.

The reporting of the Fernie Fire of 1908 is a study. That the stories could be spread so quickly using nothing more than word of mouth and telegraph wires should not really be surprising. Newspapers and telegrams were the main source of information and the systems in place were both fast and effective. That such wildly diverse tales could be spread should not be surprising either. Where there are people there are stories, lots of stories. The facts may be a different story altogether.

Next Week: The Great Fernie Fire.

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