Fire Ecology, 2016
Volume 12, Issue 3
The Chinchaga Firestorm: When the Moon and Sun Turned Blue, by Cordy Tymstra
Author: James K. Agee
The Chinchaga Firestorm is the story of an incredible firestorm in western Canada during summer and early fall of 1950. The two million hectare complex of over 100 wildfires is the largest ever recorded in Canada, but because it was not within the boundaries of the fire suppression zone for the province of Alberta, it was not even recorded in the official fire report for that year! It was a complex of unrecorded “ghost fires” that were initially ignored in Alberta by all but local people, yet the firestorm became famous for the smoke plume that traveled around the world. Tymstra weaves stories of the fire, the local people who experienced it, and the worldwide effects of the smoke plume, explaining the book subtitle, “When the Moon and Sun Turned Blue.”
The introduction sets the stage for the boreal forest as a land of fire, with its flora and fauna adapted to recurring large, intense fires. Chapter 1 introduces the players that were present in 1950 to witness the event, including Frank LaFoy, who was the local forest officer responsible for forest protection over 26 000 km2 of forest but was provided with few resources to protect anything. Chapter 2 describes “Black Sunday,” 24 September 1950, and the atmospheric conditions that caused it. By mid-afternoon that day, skies darkened in the eastern US, from Illinois to New York, due to the dense smoke from the British Columbia and Alberta fires trapped between two inversions—a blackout that persisted for hours. The illustrations in this chapter are particularly useful in showing the path of the plume. Chapter 3 notes the occurrence of other large fire events across North America, all associated with preceding dry winters, early springs, extended summer droughts, periodic strong winds, and contiguous areas of large fuel loads. Interestingly, one of the events, the Yacolt Burn Complex (96 000 ha) of southwestern Washington, USA, is described as the largest fire in the state’s history, a record that “still stands.” But it was eclipsed in 2014 by the Carlton Complex (104 000 ha) and again in 2015 by the Okanogan Complex (123 000 ha), both in the northeastern part of the state, likely while this book was in copy editing and proof stage. As Tymstra notes in later chapters, we should expect many other such records to fall as fuels accrue and climate changes across the forests of North America.