It was the summer of 1950, and a small fire burned freely in northern BC. Due to a lack of settlements in the region, it was local forest management policy at the time to let these fires burn. And it burned…
The beginning of what some people thought was the end of the world started on June 2, 1950, with a small wildfire near Rose Prairie in the northeast corner of British Columbia.
It had been an exceptionally hot spring and forest fire managers were too busy with other fires in B.C., Alberta and the southern Yukon to do anything about a blaze that was remote and so far away from human settlements. The policy back then was to ignore fires that were 15 kilometres away from roads or human activity.
Within a few days, though, the fire crossed into Alberta’s Chinchaga wild lands. Fuelled by a tinder-dry forest that seemingly went on forever, the relatively small blaze developed into a wildfire of such monstrous proportions that the thickness of the smoke led some people in Ontario to believe that an atomic bomb had exploded and that the western world was at war with Russia.
Aircraft were grounded. Farmers milked their cows earlier, chickens went to roost and the U.S. Air Force postponed a search for a missing plane.
As the winds blew, and weather patterns changed, the fire turned east. Eventually crossing the Alberta border and growing each day. The final numbers after 222 days of burn were estimated at 3.5 million acres (later technology increased that number to 4.2 million).
The “Great Smoke Pall of 1950” could be witnessed as far away as Great Britain and Holland. The heat was so intense in spots that it changed the chemistry of the soil to the point where trees could not regenerate.
“The sun was turned to various shades of blue or violet over much of the eastern part of the continent.” The Globe and Mail and Toronto Star newspapers wrote articles and published illustrations explaining why the city of Toronto had to turn on the street lights at midday.
It was not an alien invasion as some people feared. Nor was it an eclipse of the sun, as others believed. But in places such as Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Fort Erie and New York, it was so dark that the lights at baseball stadiums had to be turned on to illuminate midafternoon ball games.
An article in the New York Times quoted one woman who told how her rooster was so confused it crowed at 4 p.m., thinking it was dawn.
“Everyone remembers what he was doing when he heard that President Kennedy had been shot, that Pearl Harbor was bombed or that either world war had ended,” local historian Norman Carlson wrote in the Jamestown Post Journal.
“So to everyone my age and older remembers another event: a Sunday afternoon in 1950 when the sun ceased to give her light and our primitive fears of darkness, mortality and powerlessness rose at least near enough to the surface to etch a lasting trace that belied our outward calm.”