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The Chinchaga Firestorm: When the Moon and Sun Turned Blue

By Cordy Tymstra and Mike Flannigan

Review By Stephen J. Pyne

October 14, 2015

BC Studies no. 190 Summer 2016  | p. 162-163

Some fires are justly renowned. Some are celebrities — known for being known. A few are famous for being unknown. The 1871 Peshtigo fire in the US has long marketed itself as America’s Forgotten Fire. The Canadian equivalent may be the 1950 Chinchaga burn.

In truth, the Chinchaga fire complex has been known in the Canadian forestry community since it happened, and over the past couple of decades it has been studied by Peter Murphy and Cordy Tymstra, who worked out its dimensions and dynamics. But there is a difference between a big fire and a great one, and the Chinchaga complex has nestled among the big. Now Tymstra and Mike Flannigan have returned to argue that it is also a great fire in its ecological and political effects and its message for Canadian society. No longer a big burn, it is reimagined as a firestorm.

The Chinchaga fires became large because the boreal forest is extensive, unbroken by the lakes of the Canadian Shield; because the major fires started early and burned through the long season; and because, north of the Peace River, the fires were beyond the established line of control for both the British Columbia and Alberta forest services. The largest of the pack, the 1.4 million hectare Chinchaga River Fire, merits detailed reconstruction here in its own chapter. Some 81 per cent of fire spread occurred over a fifteen-day period, the bulk during the great wind of 20-22 September 1950.

It’s harder to demonstrate the Chinchaga fires’ significance beyond that staggering scale. They didn’t get recorded on official statistics or fire atlases. They didn’t seem to influence major policy shifts, which were underway for other reasons. They didn’t burn in or over communities as the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park Fire, near Kelowna, and the 2011 Slave Lake Fire did. Their major influence was an extraordinary plume — what became known as the Great Smoke Pall — that, “sandwiched” between inversions, stayed aloft for seven days while it trended southeast to the US before warping northeastward and turning the sun and moon blue in Scotland. The pall and its effects merit two chapters.

The text covers a lot of topics — anything that might give explanation, context, or comparison to the Chinchaga fires. But like the scattering of light by which smoke obscures visibility, a narrative scatter blurs rather than sharpens the contours. The text bounces from fact-particle to fact-particle, from one research project to another, from people who are introduced in 1952 and who then reappear in 1948. The authors note that a fire prevention program in the Peace River Country was a “huge success,” as reported by the Peace River Record Gazette on 21 September 1950; yet this was exactly the time of the great surge of burning (122). The fires were singular, yet “not an anomaly” (133). The Chinchaga River Fire had “lasting impacts,” yet it is absent from the 1957 forest cover map of Alberta that “represents the first view of Alberta’s forests” before modern fire suppression ramped up (xxiv, 13). A kind of explanatory pall hangs over the book that impresses by its dimensions yet can confuse in its details.

This is surely the definitive account of the Chinchaga complex. It will be welcomed by the North American fire community and by anyone interested in the settlement of the Boreal Plains Ecozone of western Canada.

The Chinchaga Firestorm: When the Moon and Sun Turned Blue
Cordy Tymstra and Mike Flannigan
Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2015. $34.95 paper