Unknown Victoria

Victoria: The Unknown City is a guidebook to an eccentric town on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. This is the author's blog. Look here for Victoria lore, updates and additions to the book, and hate mail.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Born of Fire

“The Savages have an abominable habit of burning the woods,” wrote Captain Walter Colquhoun Grant in 1851. Vancouver Island’s first settler (and the man to blame for importing Scotch Broom), Grant established a farm near Sooke, and reported on his progress to colonial governor James Douglas. Many features of Grant’s new home annoyed him, but especially “the frequency of the fires kindled promiscuously by the natives both in wood and prairie,” and he urged Douglas to reduce treaty payments to them for every fire they set.

Captain Grant didn’t know it, but fire has always been a fact of life here. According to experts in dendochronology (the study of tree rings), huge fires used to rage across pre-colonial Vancouver Island every 50 to 100 years. Two such fires, in the 16th and 17th centuries, were so massive that they burned as much as 8,000 square kilometres of forest – a quarter of the entire island.

Obviously, such fires were terribly destructive, just like the ones that have recently raged elsewhere in British Columbia. But it turns out that fires have also been responsible for creating the city we know today.

As UVic historian John Lutz has noted, the main reason why James Douglas chose this place to build a Hudson’s Bay Company fort in 1843 was its vast “perfect Eden” of prairie and Garry oak trees – today’s Beacon Hill Park – which he thought perfect for farming. What Douglas didn’t know was that these meadows were already cultivated by the Lekwungen (Songhees) peoples, who used controlled fires every summer to burn off grasses and shrubs to encourage food plants, such as blue camas (right). After the fort was established, Douglas began receiving complaints from settlers like Captain Grant, and the HBC stamped out the fires by turning the meadows into grazing land for sheep and cattle, and by offering the natives jobs at the fort – or threatening them with violence. (To stop the natives from rustling cattle, HBC factor Roderick Finlayson once destroyed an empty Lekwungen lodge with cannonshot.)

The terror of fire also affected the development of Fort Victoria, and the town that grew up around it. Douglas established our first fire department during the 1858 gold rush, when thousands of travellers set up tents and shacks here, outfitted with wood-burning stoves. Surveyors laying out Victoria’s downtown favoured wide streets because they would create firebreaks, preventing flames from leaping block to block. In 1862, Douglas passed a law prohibiting construction of wooden buildings more than six metres high in the centre of town, and in 1879, the law was amended to require all new downtown structures to be made of brick or stone.

That didn’t stop the flames. In 1907, a fire that started in an iron works engulfed more than 90 buildings along Herald Street between Store and Government, leaving 250 people homeless. In 1910, another massive fire destroyed “half of the City of Victoria” (said the Times of London), wiping out most of the buildings occupied by today’s Bay Centre (photo above left). When the area was rebuilt, View Street was opened between Broad and Government for the first time. (Before the fire, Trounce Alley was the only way through the block.)

As Dave Parker notes in First Water, Tigers!, his excellent history of the Victoria Fire Department, many regional landmarks have perished in flames. Waterfront resorts burned, such as Oak Bay’s Hotel Mount Baker in 1902, and the Cadboro Bay Hotel (photo right) in 1931. The grand Willows Exhibition Building in Oak Bay burned down in 1907. The Patrick Arena, where the Victoria Cougars won the 1925 Stanley Cup, burned down in 1929; indoor hockey then moved to a Willows rink that burned in 1944 (photo at top), inspiring construction of the all-concrete Memorial Arena. The wooden grandstands of Royal Athletic Park were destroyed by fire in 1964, as were the stables at Sandown race track in 1966, killing 11 horses. Even the Queen’s representatives have not been spared: Victoria’s first Government House burned down in 1899, and its successor did the same in 1957 (photo below left).

(Fire also created local governments. Many current Westshore municipalities, including Langford, Colwood, and Sooke, began in the 1940s as “fire protection districts,” ruled by elected boards of trustees with the power to charge property taxes for fire-fighting.)

Thankfully, Victoria doesn’t experience many big infernos today. Ted Alexis, president of the VFD Historical Society and a retired battalion chief, says only three percent of the department’s calls are actual fires now; most are “first responder” emergencies instead. Lumber mills and other flammable industries have moved from the city core, notes Alexis, and “people take more care than they used to.” Far fewer people smoke nowadays, let alone in bed. Building and electrical codes are tougher. Smoke detectors are commonplace. And fireworks, beach fires, and backyard burning have been outlawed in most municipalities.

The consequence, as some historians have noted, is that fire has practically become a state monopoly: ever-fewer people have much direct experience with setting or controlling it, even though fire is a primary tool of human civilization.

The outdoor fires that first inspired Victoria may soon be revived, however. Thomas Munson, a natural areas technician with the City of Victoria parks department, says he hopes to conduct a controlled grass fire in Beacon Hill Park next year, to study how it will improve the growth of native plants. Similar experimental burns (right) have been conducted in Garry oak meadows near Duncan, and the only problems have been dealing with panicked phone calls from neighbours to fire departments.

“If people smell smoke, it’s not necessarily a threat to their safety or their property,” says Munson. “Our biggest challenge will be public education.” If Captain Grant and James Douglas had received similar lessons 150 years ago, our town might’ve turned out quite differently.


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