Tuesday, August 24, 2010  
   Volume 80 - Issue 34 Website:www.passherald.ca   email: passherald@shaw.ca   $1.00   
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Quote of the Week
“I’ve decided with the coming election that I will not run for mayor again.”
- John Irwin  
- on deciding to run for   
council and not for mayor   

 

Looking Back - John KinnearIt has been 102 years since the famous fire of August 1st, 1908 tore through the town of Fernie, BC and changed the face of its downtown forever. Today it is a marvelous collection of brick and stone buildings lovingly restored and tastefully enhanced with planters and trees. Back in 1908 it was mostly wood buildings and the firestorm that obliterated 95 percent of the town brought about bylaws that demanded the stone and brick replacements that still stand proudly today.
I thought it might be fun to go back to some of the dramatic writing that appeared in the Fernie Free Press in the week following the conflagration that swallowed the town up. That particular issue of the now 112 year old and still running local paper was printed out of Cranbrook as the Free Press’s building and printing presses were naught but a pile of ashes.
In bold type the article opened with a sentence so full of adjectives and commas that you will need to take a deep breath if you want to read it all in one pass. It reads: “Scorched and blistered by whirling flames, blinded by smoke and ashes, crazed by separation from loved ones, and fleeing they knew not whither, checked by walls of flame just as safety seemed at hand, confused by the suddenness of the catastrophe and faint with seemingly futile exertion, the people of Fernie and suburbs went through an experience last Saturday afternoon that will be remembered with horror as long as they live.” I warned you. Okay, now you can breathe.
How’s that for getting into a story. The writer goes on to say: “Scarcely is there a man, woman or child in the city who did not have a fight for life and many of them looked death in the face and experienced the intensity of the supreme moment. Caught like rats in a trap (oh, please!) the whole country for miles around was one blazing furnace, with no certainty of escape, no matter in what direction, baffled by turns on the one hand and on the other, it was not so much the physical suffering, intensive though it was, not the imminence of death that told on the nerves of the people, but their helplessness in the situation and the diabolical ingenuity with which the flames sought out every point of refuge, as if animated by a fiendish personality.”
Okay, you can breathe again. That last paragraph had no less than eight commas in it!
Under a bold sub headline entitled DRIVEN LIKE SHEEP the writer continued his dramatic overview with: “The people of Old Town, most of them immigrants, had to be driven like sheep (baah) ahead of a few cool-headed men who took in the situation and forced them to decamp (decamp?) san impedimenta of any kind, towards apparent safety to the north. Mothers with babes in arms, barefooted and scantily clad children and men with flocks of tiny tots (since when did tots come in flocks?) poured out of Old Town in a delirious mob, crying, screaming, praying and shouting.”
Now I realize that it was a dire situation but jeez don’t you think the writer is sort of coming unglued?
 
The next paragraph goes on to say: “The situation cannot be imagined. If a fugitive fell, she or he was caught up or trampled upon, according to the condition of panic of those nearest. Terrified and screaming children separated from their parents and friends, but to the eternal credit of the men of Fernie it may be said that not a child perished who was left to the mercy of strangers. The little ones were dragged or carried with adults, they were sheltered by coats of men who carry on their bodies deep, open scars as testimony of their sacrifices.”
I have studied many accounts of how this remarkable fire progressed through the town of Fernie and the heroism that was displayed in all quarters. Probably the most fascinating of them involves the trains (CPR and GNR) and the wonderful job they did getting everyone out of town safely. Of this situation the writer had the following to report under another dramatic paragraph entitled BRIDGE BURNED OUT. It involves the GNR (Great Northern Railway) train and reads:” Steaming north out of the blazing ruins the train pushed through to the Michel Bridge, only to find that it was burned out. The train passed through miles of burning timber and was in the midst of it when it was necessary to come back. The return journey was the most trying. It was necessary to keep the doors and windows closed to keep out the smoke and flames. The cars were crowded to suffocation. The engineer and fireman and a look-out pilot faced the ordeal like men. In the distribution of medals their names should not be forgotten. Many were crowded on the platforms and suffered severe burns. Babies who had had no nourishment for hours cried pitifully. Women fainted with the heat. As the train passed Hosmer the mines powder magazine blew up with a shattering roar and the possible horrors of the disaster added to the misery of the situation.”
On the west side of Hosmer it was discovered the way ahead appeared to be blocked by flames but they decided to make a break for it through the fire. The article says:” A rain of burning material was falling on the roofs of the coaches and the heat was intense. Women screamed as the flames licked the windows and men shouting for silence only added to the tumult. Proceeding slowly with occasional stops, the train worked its way along through the fire and finally pulled up at Cut Bank and a stop was made for the night.
Cut Bank is a spot just east of Fernie where the highway cuts very close to the Elk River. There the train was evacuated and the passengers climbed down to the river for protection. Apparently men build crude stone walls along the banks to shield the women and children from the driving heat and flames of the still wild forest fire.
I don’t know about you folks but as far as I am concerned if ever there was material for a great movie the story of the 1908 Fernie firestorm has got it all.
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