Forest fires were, and are, a yearly occurrence in the mountains of British Columbia. As soon as dry weather sets in they destroy valuable timber and, today, even national parks. In the 1800s the fires burned from spring to autumn and were only completely extinguished when there was sufficient snow cover.

The aftermath of the 1886 forest fire in the Kicking Horse Pass.

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A. O. Wheeler, in a report to the government on his 1901 - 1902 commission to carry out a more detailed surveys of the land adjacent to the railway using new photographic techniques, speaks of the acceptance of the fires at the turn of the century as almost common place.

“On the 8th [of July 1901], camp was moved to Revelstoke by freight train, swimming the horses across the river and sending them in by the trail along the north bank. The new camp was established some three miles from the town, in a belt of green timber bordering the clearing of a so-called rancher. The Columbia valley, at this point, was on fire and to reach the ground selected, the team and wagon conveying the outfit had to pass through blazing bush. Indeed, the very bush in which we camped was burning on three sides. The crash of falling trees could be heard during the silence of the night like the reports of cannon, and in the morning the tents would be found thickly covered by ashes. Green bush, however, burns slowly when there is no wind, and it was but a few yards to the clearing.”

With the coming of the railway fires could, and were, started by sparks from passing locomotives. But many were attributed to either lightning or human activity. Wheeler believed that while “the great body of prospectors and miners are careful about setting out fire, … undoubtedly there are some who are utterly reckless, and even wantonly burn over tracts of country difficult of access, that they may more readily prosecute the search for minerals.”

Fires in 1885 plagued construction of the railway through the Selkirk Mountains but the more destructive fires occurred in July, of 1886. One in the Kicking Horse Pass burned the section house (station), water tower, and bridge at Hector along with five miles of telegraph line and the bridge at the first crossing of the Kicking Horse River.

The scars of this fire lasted well into the 1950s when second grow obliterated them. In the early years the CPR was known to retouch photographs, adding green branches to the silver and black spars of burnt trees in order to attract tourist to the region.

Hector following the forest fire of 1886. The  section house (station), water tower, and bridge destroyed by the fire have been rebuilt.

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The 1886 forest fire extended as far west as the first crossing of the Kicking Horse River to the west of Wapta lake. This bridge was also destroyed and subsequently replaced.

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Near Wapta Lake (earlier known as Kicking Horse Lake), contractors erected a dynamite plant that produced 90 tons of the material in 1884 and a sawmill,  trusses and other lumber needed for trestle construction from Douglas-firs and western red cedars harvested locally. Precisely milled principle beams for construction of trestles were brought from eastern Canada.

Presumably the dynamite plant and the sawmill did not exist by 1886, or may also have been destroyed by the fire.

In the MBC 1887, I have relocated this sawmill to Stephen Siding and extended its activity beyond completion of the railway in 1885.



September 5, 2016

September 5, 2016

The 1886 Forest Fire