—Brian Wilson, Archivist – Okanagan Archive Trust Society
There is confusion about the history the big fire and of this sign. Here’s the true story.
The “Big Burn” was first reported on August 8th, 1945 by a Canadian Pacific Airline pilot who saw it from his flight path. The smoke was so heavy that a Kamloops Forestry lookout spotted it at about the same time as a U.S. Forest Service tower in the Cascades called it in.
The story of the cigarette is not altogether true. Actually, the true cause of the fire was a slash burn that got away from workers building the Hope-Princeton Highway.
Because of the rough terrain between the Allison hill and the Skagit Bluffs, it was not until August 11th that 140 men were able to reach the centre of the fire zone.
The Forest Service took advantage of the Japanese camp at Tashme and pressed the internees to work the fire. That brought the force to well over 200 men.
The fire was attacked for 11 days before bringing it under some kind of control. It wasn’t until August 26th during a long rain storm that it was declared “out”.
By then the fire had devastated 5,920 acres of prime timber. The scar remained for many years.
The gallows wasn’t erected until well after the Hope-Princeton was officially opened in 1949.
Funny thing about the sign is that it was at the start of the B.C. Forest Service forest fire prevention program. The U.S. had launched its Smokey Bear program at this time and the Bear quickly became a household symbol.
Canadians couldn’t make up their mind as to a symbol…who wanted Benny the Beaver preventing forest fires? So, the gallows went up to the horror of some who travelled the road. The cigarette was the symbol of devastation even though the ravaged area was not caused by the butt.
It wasn’t until 1956 that the Canadian Forestry Association bought rights to Smokey. We’ve shared it ever since.
When capital punishment ended in Canada in 1962, the gallows became inappropriate and was taken down.
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Brian Wilson is the archivist for the Okanagan Archive Trust Society, based in the South Okanagan. Each week he brings tales from history alive in his column, A look back in time. Check out the society’s website at www.oldphotos.ca.