A prairie fire in the Burnt Lake district. (Photo by Bert Fors via Red Deer Archives)

A prairie fire in the Burnt Lake district. (Photo by Bert Fors via Red Deer Archives)

Michael Dawe: Fires of spring 1931 in central Alberta

Central Alberta has just come through a relatively warm and dry winter and early spring. While such events are not unknown, the past season has been one of the warmest and driest in many decades. One example of a similar “open” winter and spring occurred 90 years ago in 1931.

The winter had been so dry that the only measurable precipitation from Christmas to the beginning of March fell on Jan. 10. Only 8 mm (1/3 inch) of snow fell that day. Weather was generally so warm that the matches for the Alberta curling championship in Red Deer on Feb. 25 that year had to be played after midnight. Otherwise it was too warm to maintain a proper sheet of ice.

A few days later, a sizable forest fire broke out in the Clearwater Forest Reserve. Forest fires in late February and early March are rare. However, things were so dry and snow cover so sparse, that once started, there was little to control the spread of the blaze.

Things go much worse on March 3 when high winds blew in. Fires broke out in many rural areas, particularly west of Eckville and near Rocky Mountain House. One at Alhambra/Horseguard caused widespread damage to farms, a sawmill and timber stands. Other fires struck at Rocky Mountain House, Kevisville, Ridgewood (west of Penhold), and Lacombe.

John “Scotty” Neilson was badly burnt when he unsuccessfully attempted to save his horses while in the bush northwest of Rocky Mountain House. Henry Neilson (no relation) lost his life when he and his team of horses were surrounded by fire just west of the Kevisville store. He had been attempting to head home to help protect his family and farm from the blaze.

The high winds also whipped up a huge dust storm. Conditions with the heavy dust, mixed with smoke, became so severe that people in Red Deer had to turn on their lights in the middle of the day in order to see.

A subsequent snowfall helped ease the conditions a bit. However, the skiff of snow that fell in many areas did nothing to ease the very dry conditions. The bush and forest fires were more significantly reduced towards the end of March when temperatures dropped to more than -25 C.

High winds returned in April and early May, bringing back the huge dust storms across much of central Alberta. In one storm at Ponoka, visibility was reduced to less than 10 metres due to the heavy dust.

On April 29, one pasture fire on the north side of the Red Deer River jumped to the south side, and into Balmoral district, due to the combination of high winds and low water levels in the river. The farmer, where the fire started, was later fined $15 (roughly the same amount as two weeks of an average person’s wages) for failing to take sufficient fire control measures on his property.

Fortunately, enough rain and snow fell in west central Alberta and the foothills to initially prevent another outbreak of wildfires. Nevertheless, in mid-May, the Alberta Forestry Service began to restrict travelling and timber permits in the forestry reserves because of the continuing significant threat of fire.

Meanwhile, a large and serious grass fire broke out in the Village of North Red Deer. It was thought that it started with random sparks from someone’s chimney. It took a concerted effort by a number of villagers and school children to keep the blaze from reaching the school and nearby buildings. Another fire broke out on the south side of the Exhibition Grounds. In this case, the fire department was able to get the blaze under control before any buildings were damaged.

The forest fire threat at Rocky Mountain House and area rose again in June. One bad fire occurred near the community of Saunders. Another broke out near Dovercourt. On one Sunday afternoon, the Forestry Service found itself struggling to manage seven new blazes.

Fortunately, heavy rains commencing at the end of June greatly reduced the numbers of forest fires in west central Alberta. However, British Columbia battled a bad forest fire situation for the rest of the summer.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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