The Great Fernie Fire of 1908

How a town of 5,000 was wiped out in an East Kootenay conflagration

Top: Ominous smoke clouds bear down on the town of Fernie. Bottom: The process of rebuilding begins. Many people took refuge during the fire in the present day City Hall (centre). The gutted Post Office (centre right) is now the public library.

Jim Cameron

The summer of August, 1908, was not a good year for forest fires. Hot, dry weather created conditions ripe for disaster.

On the day of Saturday, Aug. 1, many Cranbrook citizens battled a threatening blaze just to the south of the city. At 4 o’clock that afternoon a message came down the wire from Fernie saying that the Fernie-Ft. Steele Brewery was on fire, then the lines suddenly went dead.

When communication was restored a few hours later came the unbelievable news that the town of Fernie was gone, wiped off the face of the map.

The people of Cranbrook, their own fire reasonably in hand, immediately undertook preparations for the aid of their sister city. The first relief train left for Fernie shortly after midnight with another following soon after.

The wellsprings of the fire began over a week before, nothing more than smouldering embers in the timber limits of a logging company to the west of the city. At the time it was not considered serious and was ignored. Big mistake. On the morning of August 1, a light breeze soon changed to a high wind that fanned the embers. As the wind grew to a gale the flames began their inexorable drive towards the town.

The blaze jumped the river while taking out the bridges and rolled into the west side of Fernie. The pest house (a hospital holding smallpox victims, all of whom escaped) and the Fernie Brewery were soon afire. The flames carried on to lumber yards near the city where volunteer fire fighting efforts proved futile. Within minutes three hotels were in flames.

Smaller fires started throughout the town and soon converged to form a cyclonic fire spout of nearly indescribable proportions. The Opera House roof blew off before the building caught fire while the roof of the Fernie Hotel flew into the air and scattered across the townsite.

The front of the Waldorf Hotel blew diagonally across the street and through the windows of the buildings opposite. Large, red hot sections of corrugated roofing from the arena flew in the air for several blocks. Men and animals were flattened by the winds while large trees were uprooted or snapped like toothpicks.

Within an hour almost all was lost. Those who had not already escaped to the river huddled in and around the Crows Nest Coal Co. office (now Fernie City Hall), the Western Canada Wholesale warehouse and the Catholic priest’s residence (all concrete structures which managed to withstand the blaze).

Many left on a train headed towards the east but it was forced to retreat from the fire near Hosmer and discharge passengers to spend a harrowing night on the river. The Cranbrook trains managed to get in and return through the flaming forests with hundreds of refugees clinging on for dear life.

The first train arrived in Cranbrook at 4 a.m. as the city prepared to do everything possible to ease the suffering of the victims. The Auditorium (the site of the present day Armond Theatre) and the Curling Rink (in what is now Rotary Park) quickly became living and eating quarters, but it was not nearly enough for the 3,000 refugees.

With the population of Cranbrook practically doubled every available space was utilized: Hotels, lodge halls, houses, stores, railcars and vacant lots soon filled to overflowing with stunned refugees, many in need of medical attention and all frantic for news of missing relatives and friends. Relief committees provided shelter, food and clothing while local societies began the task of fundraising (the efforts of which would soon spread across the continent while nearby cities including Nelson, Spokane and Kalispell would offer unstinting relief).

Fernie, once a town of over 5,000 people, was now a wasteland within a wasteland: 100 businesses and 700 residences in smouldering ruins. The death toll turned out to be remarkably low. The lists (and not all agree) included Mrs. Clara Barton, Lena Bell (of the red-light district), John Cupik, three unidentified bodies including a young girl in the Waldorf Hotel and, perhaps most tragically, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Ford and their two children who took shelter in a well and, according to eyewitness accounts, boiled to death.

In true pioneer fashion the people of Fernie, once recovered, soon rose to the challenge of creating the town anew. A tent city rapidly grew on the site as men began the construction of temporary wooden shelters for themselves, their families and their businesses. The recently installed and undamaged sewer system was soon put to use and within a few days the CPR had the yard up and running. The King Edward Hotel opened for business on August 8, followed shortly by a bank, a bakery, three more hotels, a general store and a livery stable. Music once again echoed through the valley as the Salvation Army band reclaimed their undamaged instruments hastily stored in the vault of the recently constructed Post Office which, although gutted, still stood.

The first wedding in the new town took place on August 13.

Although life in Cranbrook gradually returned to normal over the next two weeks, for the people of Fernie it would take somewhat longer as, undaunted, they began the task of laying the bricks and mortar of the future.

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