May 11th, 2016 ~ Vol. 85 No. 19
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Anna Hubbard's Story
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
Photo: Internet
The view Kelly had as she and her family fled from downtown
Early Tuesday afternoon on May 3rd I got a call from my daughter Kelly in Fort McMurray. She lives downtown near the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre and was sitting on the roof of her house when she called to update us. She was under a probable evacuation notice and preparing for that to change. She was somewhat astonished to watch the wildly explosive flames from this out of control maelstrom crest the hill above her on the west side of the infamous Highway 63. The flames were tearing through the Abasand subdivision and soon after that the police told everyone it was time to go. So three vehicles with her two sons and three cats hit the clogged interchange below Abasand Heights and were redirected, mercifully along with 25,000 others north instead of south. Those that went south drove through hellish walls of flame leaping up from the edge of the road. Social media carried thousands of images and videos of this ride from hell which left us all shaking our heads in disbelief.

Kelly and family spent that first night on the highway near a place called the Bridge to Nowhere which crosses the Athabasca River and were moved into a massive work camp the next day. As I sat in my motor home, east of Calgary, monitoring the horrific unfolding of this firestorm, I felt so dam helpless. What could I do but pray and trust that a massive effort to save that town would be mounted quickly.

It seems that, despite all our efforts, the demon fire can surface any time and remind us of our vulnerability to this ever present menace. This type of event seems a lot rarer these days but Fort Mac is a wake-up call for all of us that years of drought, climate change and an El Nino cycle have sucked the moisture out of this province of ours. It is going to be a long, dangerous summer.

As I reflected on all this I remembered an amazingly parallel story to my daughter’s game changing event that I had researched years ago. It goes back 108 years to a similar firestorm that swept through the Elk Valley on August 1, 1908. While I have told the great Fernie fire story many times it was the personal recounting of it by a school mistress working in Fernie by the name of Anna Hubbard that I thought I would share this time.

It is a story that involves the Great Northern Railway and the role it played in taking hundreds of fleeing Fernieites away from the monster off its leash in the Elk Valley. There were two GNR railway men whose dauntless efforts saved the day for the terrified populace about to be trapped there. The trap was a seething wall of flame driven by incredible winds which were amplified even more by the blaze itself into a firestorm from hell. That wall of death had rapidly cut off the residents in the north and east ends of town from access to the coal company office where hundreds of terrified people had sought refuge.
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It was no accident that the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company office (now City Hall) provided some safety there, as it is constructed of 18 inch thick cast block walls and was strategically situated in the middle of a city block by itself. Having lost their building twice before to fire, when the company rebuilt for the third time in 1905 it was deliberately positioned to ensure it would survive another fire.

The fortunate thing for those cut off residents that day was that the daily GNR passenger train had not yet left town and was standing at the depot. What a sight it must have been then for the engineer Charles Hart and the conductor Louis Bruckhouser as half the city raced desperately towards them. Amongst those fleeing was Anna Hubbard, a schoolmistress who described the experience to a reporter for the "Kalispell Bee" newspaper ten days later.

In that report she said: "The frightened, fleeing crowd immediately filled the coaches to congestion. The train pulled out about a mile and a half from town to the first bridge across a branch of the Elk River, where we were unloaded and the train returned for others, whose only means of escape was by being taken out by railway. The heat became so intense on the rocky point where we were left that the only way we could save our lives was by going into the water, which was about waist deep, and all who did not have on woolen clothes, which could be wet and placed over their heads, had to lie down in the water. The smoke was suffocating and the heat was so intense that we all believed we could live but a few minutes."

To help you with the mental picture of this trip it should be remembered that the GNR line ran straight north-east out of Fernie on what is now Highway 3 heading for Sparwood. The GNR depot was across the highway from Fernie’s present day community center.

Ms. Hubbard continued by saying:"One man fell dead within a few feet of where I stood in the water and I assisted in caring for the body. What made it so much worse was that the air was filled with embers, which looked like small pieces of flame, and these would fall on our faces and hair, and it was difficult to keep the hair from burning from one's head. At this point in the river there were about 500 people. We gave up, no one believing that he would live through it all."
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"The train returned with a second load, which passed us, as it was so hot that they could not be landed where we were. They were taken on a distance and the train returned for us. We boarded it and an attempt was then made to get to Michel, sixteen miles away. The train was literally packed with suffering, frightened humanity. On top of the coaches, in the tender, between the cars, everywhere there were people."

As long as I live I do not think I will ever be able to get the full mental picture in my mind of what that train of desperate humanity must have looked like as it inched its way north towards Michel while the whole world around them was on fire.

Anna continued by saying:"All the way was through a dangerous fire, the ties already smoking most of the distance. When we reached a point four miles from Michel it was discovered that the bridge was burned out, and to remain where we were without water meant the death of all on board, while to return seemed impossible, as the heat was so great that the rails were beginning to twist slightly.

But for the determination and courage of Conductor Louis Bruckhouser and Engineer Hart-and no braver men ever lived-we would all without a doubt have lost our lives. We were then taken back to the rocky point, where we spent the night surrounded by flames. The heat was not so great, but the smoke was suffocating, and to protect us from this the men built little stalls from the rocks and the smoke passed over us."

The next morning Anna Hubbard and hundreds of others returned to the smoldering remains that were once their homes. The GNR depot, like the Crows Nest Pass Coal company office, had survived the conflagration due to its isolated position. Not so for the rows and rows of GNR cars loaded with coke destined for the US. They became fuel that no doubt magnified that horrendous fire's intensity. A San Francisco salesman for vaults and safes claimed he'd never seen such heat damage and he spoke with some authority as he was there for the cleanup after San Francisco’s famous 1906 fire. The steel trucks on the GNR cars literally melted like wax.

That horrific day for Anna Hubbard and the rest of the relatively new town of Fernie was a defining moment in that town's history. Their downtown was rebuilt of brick and stone, the people of that tremendous rebuild ever determined to maintain their beautiful mountain location despite the valley's apparent resistance to them being here. And so it will be for Fort McMurray. The massive planning and reconstruction efforts are already started and Fort Mac will rise again from the ashes.
May 11th ~ Vol. 85 No. 19
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