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Posts Tagged ‘Peter J. Murphy’

In just two short paragraphs, the Edmonton newspaper account captured the destruction and relief felt that all were safe after a wildfire overwhelmed the town:

Swept away in the maelstrom of a raging forest fire which descended upon the place like a furnace blast on Monday afternoon, the little village … is today a mere smouldering mass of ruin and desolation, and its entire population is homeless and bereft of all personal effects, save scant articles of clothing which could be worn through the nerve-wracking struggle the people were forced to make to preserve their lives.

The absence of a death toll in the catastrophe is due to the heroic measures taken by the citizens, who rushed into the waters of the lake and defied suffocating heat and smoke by means of wet blankets. Only such measures saved many of the women and little children, the intensity of the fire being shown by the burning of the very reeds along the shore and surface of the lake.

That report may sound like the Fort McMurray fire that’s forced the evacuation of tens of thousands in Alberta. But it is not. It’s from the Edmonton Bulletin, dated May 21, 1919. The article was recounting the wildfire that burned over the village of Lac La Biche about 200 km (120 miles) northeast of Edmonton. In time, historians labeled it the Great Fire of 1919, and later still forget that it even happened. It’s rather remarkable that a fire that burned about 2 million hectares (5 million acres) and transformed a region’s landscape and culture could be forgotten, but it was. (If people can forget a forest, then forgetting a fire seems plausible.)

Fortunately, historians Peter J. Murphy, Cordy Tymstra, and Merle Massie document the Great Fire and its impact and legacy—and why it faded from memory—in “The Great Fire of 1919: People and A Shared Firestorm in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada,” available in the most recent issue of Forest History TodayThe Great Fire is not the largest on record. That honor belongs to The Chinchaga Firestorm, the largest wildfire ever documented in North America. But what sets it apart from others is the fire’s lasting impact on the landscape and soil, fire policy, and ownership of public lands—impacts the “The Great Fire of 1919” details.

The parallels between the Great Fire and Fort McMurray fire are striking: dry conditions “that desiccated the surrounding region and created a tinder-dry powder keg”; it was not one fire but a complex of many fires; the source of the fire is unknown; and that residents of one village—in 1919, it was Lac La Biche; today it’s Fort McMurray—managed to get out of harm’s way. But in 1919, not all were so lucky. In one instance, a group of 23 Cree were camping at Sekip Lake when the fire overran them in a matter of minutes. Eleven died, including a father who’s quick action saved his wife and children, though “the 12 survivors ‘bore the marks of their burns for life.'” Massie explained in a blog post written during last year’s fire season how the family might have been caught unaware of the approaching fire: “A boreal forest fire is deadly, a conflagration along the ground. Crowning, climbing up the trees to burn the tops like matches, a crowned forest fire is even more deadly. When whipped by vicious gale force winds, or across a boreal landscape dried to tinder, such a forest fire moves faster than either humans or animals.”

The boreal forest is a fire-based ecological regime, explains Massie in her book Forest Prairie Edge. “When a dry season hits, the boreal forest contains a magnitude of flammable timber and debris, peat and moss, shrubs and grasses…. In general, fire hazard is highest in jack pine stands, intermediate in spruce or fir stands, and low in hardwood (primarily trembling aspen) stands, except in a dry spring, when forest floor debris is particularly flammable.” According to Stephen Pyne in Awful Splendour, his history of fire in Canada, “The boreal region is home to Canada’s largest fires, its greatest fire problems, and its most distinctive fire regimes, the ones that define Canada as a fire nation…. Over 90 percent of the country’s big fires, which account for over 97 percent of its burned area, lie within the boreal belt.” Additionally, as Peter Murphy pointed out in an email today, the Fort McMurray fire reminds us “that the boreal forest complex can support the growth of large and high-intensity fires with its continuity of flammable fuels; and that spring can be a particularly hazardous time between ‘break-up and green-up’—that period after the snow is gone, ice breaks up, and before new leaves and needles are fully formed.” Perhaps looking at the calendar and realizing it’s only the first week of May, Cordy Tymstra, the Wildfire Science Coordinator with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry in Edmonton and author of The Chinchaga Firestorm offered this via email: “There is a lot of fire season remaining and a lot of fire still on the landscape around Fort McMurray.”

To read more about about the 1919 fire or other major Canadian fires, see: https://www.facebook.com/HyloVeniceCentenary/posts/257744001047212 http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/what-can-we-learn-from-the-worst-fires-in-canadian-history/

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Three cheers for the diligence and hard work of archivists! Without their labor it would be next to impossible to write informed historical narrative. In this blog entry, David Brownstein conducts a conversation with Tom Anderson, Provincial Archives of Alberta, and with Peter Murphy, Forest History Association of Alberta, regarding the Canadian Forest History Preservation Project. The project is a collaboration between the Canadian Forest Service, the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE), and the Forest History Society. The goal is to locate valuable forest history material in danger of loss or destruction, and aid in its transfer to an appropriate archive. The Canadian Forest History Preservation Project wants to hear from you if you know of any prospects.

David Brownstein: Tom, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Tom Anderson: In 2003 I graduated from the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies, at the University of British Columbia. I began work at the Provincial Archives of Alberta (PAA) in Edmonton, in 2004. I was a government records archivist for 5 years before moving to my current position as Team Lead, Private Records, where I am part of the group responsible for acquiring, preserving, and making available non-governmental records.

DB: Describe the PAA forest history holdings for us.

TA: The Provincial Archives is the repository for government records of enduring value, as well as private records of individuals, businesses, schools, associations, and societies in Alberta. Our holdings cover the whole of the province, and we are lucky to have extensive forest, environment, and resource-related records, tracing the development and history of forests and forest professionals. We hold records of those in government responsible for forests from the federal field notes of timber and land surveys and management of timber berths, up to present-day provincial ministries, ranging from the departments of Mines and Minerals, Lands and Forests, and the Department of Sustainable Resource Development. The records, be they cabinet papers, memoranda, policy records, work diaries of rangers, films, photographs, forest cover maps, or even blueprints of ranger stations, cover all aspects of forest management.

We hold records related to forest officers and their training, forest protection, timber management, reforestation, land use and climate change, equipment, legislation and regulation, and research and recreation.

As our mandate to acquire records covers the whole of the province of Alberta and is not limited to government created materials, the PAA also has textual records, photographs and films of logging, mill owners, municipalities and their efforts to fight fires, environmental groups, aerial photographs created by Weldwood of Canada, records of various flyers and their companies, and even records of bush pilots in the province. The records either directly or indirectly document the change in forests and environment over time.

DB: How can people decide if they have anything of value that deserves archival protection?

TA: Any person, family, business, or group with forest history records can either contact you for assistance, David, or they can contact an archives to discuss the records in their possession. We look to acquire records that document the lives, work, history, and culture of the province, and donors that have some connection to forestry in any capacity should hold on to their materials and make sure to speak with us before throwing anything away! We get this question a lot, and so we recently published Family Histories: Preserving Your Personal and Family Documents, available in English and French, free to anyone who comes to the Provincial Archives.

In this case, we look for records that provide evidence of a life related to forests or forestry. We are interested in material created by industry workers, active or retired professionals in the area, students, families of workers, and those dedicated to forest preservation and utilization. We look for correspondence, diaries, photographs, albums, home movies, minutes and agendas of professional or business meetings, maps, plans, and of course writings on how the forests and environment have affected the lives of Albertans, and how we have influenced our environment.

Not Tom Anderson. Rather, it's a woodcutter at Bowden, Alberta, early 1900s (PAA Photo H592).

DB: From the point of view of a box of photos or letters, what is the difference between being kept at a private home in a basement or an attic, and being housed in the archives?

TA: I would say the difference is the length of time that the different places can preserve the records. Boxed in a cool, dark closet, protected from vast changes in temperature or humidity, paper and photos can last a long time at home. We have conservators on staff if people have questions about how to preserve materials at home. Many of us do not preserve our special records in optimal conditions, though, and there is always the possibility of a fire or flood in the home. There is no guarantee that a disaster will not happen at an archives; but depending on the repository, there are safeguards in place to ensure the safest possible environment for the records, and for the longest possible time. The Provincial Archives of Alberta for example stores all its records on site in special archival enclosures, in secured climate-controlled vaults, free of temperature or humidity changes.

DB: What should people keep in mind, when considering donating their material to the archives?

TA: Potential donors should consider that the records that become part of an archives is the legacy that we leave for future generations.

Archives strive to ensure accountability, protect the rights of the people, and document all aspects of the lives of citizens. We want the holdings to be used and accessed; records at the PAA are, for the most part, open and available and free for use by anyone. The Provincial Archives is very lucky to have a number of exciting forestry-related collections of records. People must always keep in mind that we are dependant on donors. If societies, associations, businesses, or individuals do not donate their records, we cannot build on the good work of those who have donated and preserved the records of the past.

DB: How have PAA holdings been used by various researchers?

TA: Students, academics, amateur historians, genealogists, artists and writers utilize our holdings. I know that environment and forest records were used in the creation of recent exhibits, and in research for park-related studies, books and presentations, including The Alberta Forest Service 1930-2005 and Laying Down the Lines: A History of Land Surveying in Alberta.

(more…)

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