Say the Names...

Al Purdy wrote a wonderful poem called "Say the names say the names" which celebrates the names of Canadian rivers - Tulameen, Kleena Kleene, Similkameen, Nahanni, Kluane and on and on in a celebratory song.

Enbridge is planning to build a dual pipeline that will carry bitumen and condensate across hundreds of waterways between Edmonton and Kitimat. Some of these waterways are rivers like the Parsnip (or what's left of it), the Nechako, the Morice and others are smaller creeks whose names are often known only to the folks who live along their banks or who fish in their shadows or who bend to wash or drink as they cross paths.

I want to collect the names of these rivers and creeks, to collect your stories, your poems, your songs so we can collectively give voice to the land living under the line Enbridge plans to draw.

People have also sent me copies of their presentations to the community oral presentations. If you'd like to add your voice, email me (sheila.peters900@gmail.com) your stories and I'll post them for you. The copyright remains with you.

All the best.
Sheila Peters

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Swiss Fire

From Marks of a Century: A History of Houston, BC 1900 – 2000 by Grace Hols

From Sunday, May 29 to Friday, June 3, 1983, the Swiss fire burned approximately 18,000 hectares of forest south and west of Houston. Six homes were destroyed in the Buck Flats area, with many of the families leaving home at a moment's notice with only one pick-up or carload of belongings.

The blaze began at the north end of the Parrott (Widen) Lakes, went west over the top far end of Morice Mountain, and down the mountain to cross the Morice River at the 23 km point. Initially the flames travelled in one direction. Then the wind direction changed and the whole length of the fire became the front, moving it in a wide swath toward Morice Mountain.

More than 500 persons, including firefighters and other personnel, worked to contain the fire, many of them coming in to the Forest Service office to volunteer their help and equipment. Within 30 hours more than 60 machines were at work, but it was a difficult fire to manage from the start. Unusually warm temperatures in the 30 degree C. range did nothing to help control the blaze.

Six Buck Flats families lost their homes: Steve and Caroline Oben, Frank and Sofia Ebermann, Henry and Glenda Ferris, Cecil and Joyce Sutherland, Neil and Ruth Sutherland, Lee and Dorothy Rose and Mrs. Rose Sr. Some of the victims had just minutes to evacuate their homes, and escaped the flames only by taking the road through the Equity Mine site. Many other families along Buck Flats were evacuated, but not all homes were touched by the fire. Three families on the Seinen farm at 13 km on the Morice River Road were also evacuated but the fire chose a different route over Morice Mountain and their homes were spared.

While there was considerable property loss, there was no loss of human life in the fire. The people of Houston rallied and came out to support a benefit dance to help the fire victims. Boxes of clothing, food and other goods were donated. All who lost their homes eventually received compensation from the provincial government, although they had to wait almost ten years and were finally compensated in July 1994.

The fire was named after two Swiss tourists who had been smoking fish near their Parrott Lake campsite. Apparently the fire in the smokehouse got away on them, and word was they left the country as soon as they could after the forest fire broke out.
The fire burned 3.5 million cubic metres of timber with a market value of $140 million. Close to $3 million was spent battling the fire.

Salvage logging operations began soon after the fire, and by 1986 most of the salvageable wood had been removed. By 1990 reforestation programs were well underway. It was estimated it would take 25 million seedlings and 100 years for the newly planted trees to reach maturity.
Arnold Amonson was the District Manager at the Houston Forest Service at the time of the fire, and made these observations:

"The fire was caused by two visiting Swiss tourists who had been shown how to smoke fish and beaver tail in a lean to located in a small thicket of spruce trees. When they were shown how to do the smoking, the weather was cool and the fire hazard was low. A very rapid change in weather occurred, with the temperature rising to the mid 30 degree C. range and the humidity dropping rapidly. The Swiss tourists, now on their own, did not have the expertise to recognize the fire hazard, and at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, the fire spread to the spruce trees. The two fellows tried to take action with pails of water but to no avail since the fire was already some 60 or more feet above the ground.

"The fire behaviour was so drastic that the best efforts to control it were fruitless. By luck only, there was a forest officer on the scene in a helicopter within two minutes. He immediately called for an air tanker, but the fire spread so rapidly it could not be contained. By 10 p.m. that night, the fire had reached the Morice River, some 15 kilometres away.

"The public concern and the media coverage quickly jammed the office phone system, and we had to have more phone lines installed. This interfered with control action, but even so, we went from zero to 60 machines and 600 people in about three days. The trouble was, much of the fire action did no good and we were forced to regroup and try a different tactic on an hour by hour basis.

"All of us involved felt terribly that we could not control the fire and save all the heartache for those who lost their homes and belongings. No matter what anyone did, the fire was going to burn a lot of area. Luckily, the weather changed after the second day, and the fire action taken was successful."

At the time of the Swiss fire, Henry and Glenda Ferris and their two sons had lived in the Buck Flats area for ten years. They escaped the fire, saving only their clothes, some heirloom china, some fishing equipment, and their camera, but they lost the log home they had built themselves.

The kids were little, but they helped peel the logs. All the Christmas ornaments were homemade and I had to get a big tree every year because we had so many. We lost them all. Those are the things that really bother you.

We were told five hours before the fire took our place that we were okay. We didn't evacuate because the wind seemed to be blowing in a direction away from our house. We didn't know the fire was so big that it was sucking all the air into it.


There's a hill about a km behind our house and we knew that if it got to the top of that, we were leaving. All we could see coming from behind the hill, though, was smoke, not flames.

When we thought we might have to leave, I put the tractor in the creek and my wife put some stuff in the back of the pickup. A helicopter went over the hill to look at the fire and turned right around and told us we had ten minutes to get out. We were in such a hurry that we almost forgot the dog.

If the helicopter hadn't been around, I don't know what we might have done - probably stood in the creek with the tractor; it didn't get burned.

On the way out, we ran into forestry personnel running away from the fire. We couldn't see anything because there was so much smoke in the valley. The house must have burned within half an hour after we left. We were definitely impressed with the speed of the fire.

Next time we will build a house out of porcelain. We found a porcelain bird in the middle of the house that wasn't even damaged.

The fire was no one's fault and I hold no animosity toward anyone.


2 comments:

  1. Hi there,

    I am from Quebec and I remember treeplanting in Houston in 1990 in an area that everyone called the "swiss fire", a very desolate and eerie place, seeing in the distance a mountain with green and black patches from wind displacement during the fire (see picture). I remember the silence there being quite troubling while planting, as the only sound of life you could hear is your own breath and the odd bee flying by once in while. You could almost whisper to the planter next to you, who was a far, far distance away from you.

    I always wondered if the story about the two swiss guys was true, and how terrible they must of felt after they realised they where the cause of this fire. It was a tough season to plant in, due to record breaking rain fall in may and june of that year, causing road and brige damage along the river near our camp. I remember hearing that a bus full of planters fell off one of those logging bridges that spring, due to slippery conditions. Some planters died I believe...They where scary to cross, with the raging river below and the morning dew frozen on the wooden bridge surface. We also had a beaver bug outbreak, reducing the number of planter from 30 to about half, also due to never ending wet conditions, struggling to stay dry, climbing over burned timber constantly, tough conditions indeed.

    On our rare day off we went to a place called Happy Jacks, where the locals would
    give us the dirty look...one guy there was indian and was giving me a hard time because I was from Quebec and there was a lot of tension going on between the Mowhaks and our
    Government at that time leading to the Oka crisis in july. What saved me was that I kept buying him beers... :-) .There was this other guy in the bar playing pool with only one arm,
    and winning a lot!

    I remember also going to your local rodeo or, which was a lot of fun,
    people where very friendly.

    Notwithstanding the bad weather, I don't know how many trees we planted that year, but in was a lot, in the hundred thousands I believe. I often wonder how the place looks like today...I hope that my trees grew in nice and big, and still wonder if those swiss guys where ever found.

    Cheers,
    Bernard
    Magog, Quebec

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  2. Hi Bernard,

    Great to hear your story of those tree planting days - and while there's been a lot of growth in that area, it's still visible. Plus there's been major logging continuing so that parts of the district look like a wasteland - it's such beautiful country but not much fun to visit with all the industrial traffic using the dusty roads.

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