This Week in History: The devastating 1909 Fernie fire

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WatchThe Royal BC Museum's exhibit, Old Town, has pieces from a garage in Salmon Arm, a hotel in Nanaimo, and shops from Victoria. But as you walk through the exhibit, there's a subtle difference between the two sides of the street. Veronica Cooper explains.

The Royal BC Museum’s Old Town exhibit has pieces from a garage in Salmon Arm, to a hotel in Nanaimo, to shops from Victoria.

But as you walk through Old Town, there’s a subtle difference between the two sides of the street that you may never have noticed.

The difference is that the wooden buildings represent construction in British Columbia before 1908, and the brick buildings, after that date.

In 1908, the town of Fernie had a population of around 5,000. It was, by all accounts, a boomtown with massive coal mining operations, large lumber sawmills, and 700 buildings.

Lorne Hammond, curator of history at the museum, the summer of 1908 was very, very dry throughout B.C.

“The forests were tinder-dry, and there were fires around places like Hosmer. Cranbrook was fighting a fire close to the edge of town,” said Hammond.

By the end of July 1908, a small fire was burning near Fernie, which, according to Hammond, was just smoldering ash and not a major concern.

But on Aug. 1, everything changed.

“The wind came up and suddenly the fire was out of control and moving swiftly toward the town of Fernie,” explained Hammond.

As the fire continued to burn, a telegraph operator suddenly received a message saying that the brewery located on the edge of town had caught fire and a bridge was gone.

“Then the telegraph lines went dead,” said Hammond.  “People were screaming, running into the streets, there was no time to grab any possessions.”

The town hospital had to be evacuated, including patients with diphtheria, scarlet fever, typhoid, and other infectious diseases.

“Those patients were rushed into the crowds of refugees to save their lives,” said Hammond.

The fire devastated Fernie.

“It was quick,” said Hammond. “Ninety minutes, and the town was destroyed. There were only 17 houses left standing, and 5000 people had become refugees.”

Once word spread about the fire, nearby Cranbrook stopped everything and put together a rescue train, which had to go through burning forests to reach the town.

“Cranbrook stopped everything and put together a rescue train. The trains had to go through burning forests to reach the town, and they brought back 3,000 refugees that had to be fed and housed,” explained Hammond.

Other communities pitched in to help as well.

“Every major town in Alberta sent boxcars full of clothing and supplies,” said Hammond.

Incredibly, the death toll was just 10 people and the town rebuilt immediately.

“All the loggers and members of the coal companies brought their staff to town, and people began clearing the rubble,” said Hammond.

Joseph Spalding, the town’s photographer at the time, could only snap a quick shot of the fire approaching but captured the aftermath.

“His pictures became the documentation of the time a firestorm destroyed an entire B.C. town,” said Hammond.

By 1910, Fernie was rebuilt. But instead of being a town made mostly from wood, it was rebuilt with brick.

Hammond says the lessons from the Fernie fire are one of the reason’s why the museum’s Old Town exhibit represents both wood and brick construction.

“Yes, architecture was changing and B.C. was becoming a wealthier and more stable economy, but there was also the lesson of the fire in Fernie,” he said.

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