EARLY INTEREST IN THE AREA: The first interest in the Peace River Area resulted from the discovery of gold on the Parsnip and Peace Rivers in the late 1880’s. However, this strike was overshadowed by the more important gold rush taking place in the Cariboo at the same time. Although this discovery of gold had some effect on the Peace River area, the first real development was through agricultural settlement.
SETTLEMENT: Agricultural settlement in the Peace River Area occurred in three waves. The first started around 1908. After the railway belt across the prairies was settled the Peace River became the next large tract of good arable land available for settlement. The second major influx of settlers was the result of repatriation of veterans after the First World War. The third wave was caused by people trying to escape the combined effects of drought and depression on the prairies in the 1930’s.
There was rapid population growth immediately after World War II for various reasons. Again, as after World War I, returning veterans showed an interest in farming. The opening of the Alaska Highway improved transportation and tourist services, and farming moved north. Oil and gas exploration companies moved into the area and further developed its accessibility. The building boom which followed World War II increased the demand for lumber and led to rapid development in the lumbering industry in the region. Even with these periods of relatively active growth and interest in the area, the population today, 1967 is only approximately 32,000 people.
THE PEACE RIVER BLOCK: The Peace River Block, a small part of the southern portion of the area was reserved for the Dominion Government as payment for assistance received by the Province. The extent of this area was finalized in 1907 and opened for homesteading and settlement officially by the Federal Government in 1912. It contained 3,500,000 acres of arable land. The Peace River Block was administered by the Dominion Government, with timber administration and forest protection under the jurisdiction of Dominion Crown Timber Agents, at Grande Prairie, Edmonton and Peace River Crossing.
TRANSFER OF THE PEACE RIVER BLOCK TO THE PROVINCE: On August 1st, 1930 the administration of the Peace River Lands passed from Dominion to Provincial jurisdiction, with the Federal Government’s Fire Warden organization retained for protection duties until October 1st, 1930. The area then became part of the Fort George Forest District, and the Ranger in-charge with headquarters at Pouce Coupe was appointed in December 1930.
EFFECT ON FOREST PROTECTION: Physiographically the Peace River area is different from most of the remainder of British Columbia. As part of the North American Great Plain, it was considered as primarily as agricultural land, to be cleared as cheaply and as quickly as possible for agricultural use.
Farmers and ranchers considered fire as the cheapest method of clearing land. This led to the establishment of a free burning area. Large unknown quantities of valuable timber were destroyed as a result of escaped clearing fires and indiscriminate burning of forest cover. Forest protection was virtually impossible due to uncontrolled burning and totally inadequate protection staff and facilities. This lack of knowledge and facilities or indifference to the value of the forest resources has persisted through the years.
THE FREE BURNING AREA — WHEN, WHY AND HOW IT WAS SET UP: It was impossible for the limited Forest Service staff to inspect all areas prior to burning, to issue burning permits and to police their implementation even in the area of the Peace River Block. After much discussion and writing, it was recommended to the government that the area of major agricultural activity should be exempted from the sections of the Forest Act dealing with the laws and regulations governing burning. By Order-in-Council #543 on May 1st, 1931, the area so exempted became known as the Free Burning area.
The area remained unchanged until November 18, 1943, when Order-in-Council #1549 reduced the area to less than that set up by first Order-in-Council. This reduction was under taken to protect the valuable forest resources which became accessible with the construction of the Alaska Highway.
The most recent change was by Order-in-Council #1122 of May 9th, 1963 which deleted an area southeast of Dawson Creek lying between Highway #2 and the British Columbia – Alberta border. The deletion was in response to a request by the Alberta Forest Service and was intended to reduce the risk of fire in adjacent areas in Alberta over which a full forest protection policy was enforced. The Alberta Forest Service considered that uncontrolled burning coupled with the prevailing southwesterly summer winds, posed a treat to this valued forest area.
PROTECTION PROBLEMS IT CREATED: Although initially the establishment of the Free Burning Area worked effectively, it created problems. Farmers were “burned out”; homes and crops were destroyed and considerable forest resources were also destroyed. A Pacific Great Eastern Railway resources survey in 1931 estimated 3,850,800 M.B.M. of this merchantable timber. The scars caused by indiscriminate burning and escaped land clearing fires continued to be a vivid reminder of the tremendous acreages of timber that were destroyed.
Unfortunately the free burning concept spread outside the Free burning Area, and any time a farmer or rancher wanted to clear land or increase ranges he just started a fire. With the lack of Forest Service staff and detection facilities, it was impossible to enforce fire law regulations, to control these fires or to obtain prosecutions. Protection of the remaining forest resources required improved detection access, and communications as well as additional staff. The fundamental problem of re-educating the farmers, ranchers, and the general public required solution.
FOREST PROTECTION STAFF AND RESOURCES — 1930 THROUGH THE DEPRESSION: As noted earlier, a Ranger was appointed in December 1930 with headquarters at Pouce Coupe. During the 1931 and 1932 fire seasons, a patrolman was stationed at each of Fort St. John, Hudson Hope, and Pouce Coupe. Patrolman positions were disbanded after 1932 due to the depression. Consequently the only area to receive any attention at all after 1932 was roughly that portion known as the Peace River Block. The remainder of the area, particularly in the northern portions, was neglected.
THE ADVANCES OF THE 1940’S and 1950’S: In 1941 the Ranger received an assistant, and the following year another man was obtained bringing the total force to three men. Construction of the Alaska Highway, which started in 1942, created additional protection problems and the staff was further increased in 1943.
The Alaska Highway developed the area to the north, and led to the establishment of a new Ranger District composed of all the area north of the Peace River, with headquarters at Fort St. John. Two primary fire lookouts were established in the Fort St. John district in 1950. There was minor growth in staff and protection facilities until 1959 when the third Ranger District was created at Chetwynd, covering that portion mainly south and west of the Peace river Block to the Rocky Mountains.
By the late 1950’s the potential of the vast forest resources of the area was generally appreciated. The need to protect these resources more adequately was also recognized. In 1960 two small suppression crews were set up, five new lookouts were built, patrol aircraft and helicopters were made available, and communications and protection resources were up-graded. In 1962 the Hudson Hope Ranger District was established. This Ranger Headquarters was transferred in 1963 to Finlay Forks. Also in 1963, due to increased activity in the extreme north a Ranger District was created at Fort Nelson. The 1964 fire season indicated progress over the one man operation prior to 1940. There were now five well-equipped Ranger Districts with a total staff of 29 to cover the area once the responsibility of one man.
ACCESS DURING THE EARLY DAYS: Access was extremely difficult in the early days. For example, a return trip from Prince George to Pouce Coupe could have taken as long as three weeks. It was necessary to travel by car to Summit Lake then down the Crooked, Pack, Parsnip and Peace Rivers by boat to Gold Bar; then by car to Pouce Coupe. After 1931, it was possible to travel by Canadian National Railway to Edmonton, then by Northern Alberta Railway to Pouce Coupe or Dawson Creek.
The distances to be traveled were great and the roads, while good in dry weather, were impassable in wet weather due to an almost complete lack of gravel. The road system only extended west from Fort St. John, and into the immediate vicinity of Pouce Coupe. The rest of the area was inaccessible, except by horse, on foot or by boat on the main rivers.
BUILDING THE ALASKA HIGHWAY: Undoubtedly, the greatest single event, outside of the farmer settlement, in the development of the area was the construction of the Alaska Highway. The building of a heavy duty, all-weather road practically through the centre of this vast area resulted in the expansion of existing communities, the rapid development of new agricultural settlements, the rapid development of oil exploration and timber harvesting, and the creation of a transportation and tourist industry.
ACCESS DEVELOPED BY THE OIL COMPANIES: Access was further developed as a result of the exploration and developments by oil companies. Literally thousands of miles of seismic roads and trails were built. Later, hundreds of miles of main access roads to producing wells and oil and gas fields followed. These roads opened vast areas to settlers in southern portions and created access to previously inaccessible small patches and blocks of timber. Even though this increased access created some protection problems, it led to greater car and tracked vehicle access to rather remote areas. The Red Willow-Stoney Lake area south of Dawson Creek is a good example.
BUILDING OF THE HART HIGHWAY AND P.G.E: The Hart Highway, completed in 1952, connected Highway 97 through Prince George to the Alaska Highway through Dawson Creek. The Pacific Great Eastern Railway from Prince George to Dawson Creek and Fort St. John, completed in 1958, linked the Peace River area with the rest of the province and provided an outlet for the farm and forest production and a shorter route to the Pacific coast seaports. These two routes running from Dawson Creek through the southwestern part of the area to the Pine pass opened up fairly substantial timber stands in the mountain valleys. The development resulted in the establishment of Chetwynd Ranger District and improved protection facilities and access in this portion of the area.
AIRCRAFT: Even with all the ground access developed in the last 20 years, aircraft — both fixed wing and helicopters — are still the most important form of forest protection access. Due to the vastness and inaccessibility of the area, aircraft detection patrol is the only practical detection method. Aircraft is relied upon for fire-suppression supply and transportation in a large proportion of the area. In fact, without the ready availability of aircraft, forest protection in the Peace River would suffer greatly.
WEATHER: Because the area lies east of the Rocky Mountains, the summer weather is generally influenced by dry continental air masses patterns. General summer weather, when compared to the rest of the Prince George Forest District, is warmer and dryer, with almost continuos strong southwesterly winds. A good example was the summer of 1964. While most of British Columbia west of the Rocky Mountains was receiving a cool moist summer, hot dry weather with long rain-free periods prevailed throughout most of the Peace River area.
FIRE HAZARD: Due to a combination of warm dry weather, long rain free periods and strong southwesterly winds, the Peace River generally experiences an above average fire hazard, over a rather extended fire season. There is usually a high spring hazard due to dense ground cover of dead grasses and annuals. A high hazard period also occurs in the latter part of July and in August, and coincides with lightning activity. This high hazard period often extends until late September, with the drying of grasses and extended warm weather.
GENERAL FIRE BEHAVIOUR: Due to low humidity and strong winds, fires in this area tend to spread rapidly in a northeasterly direction. In a number of cases, fires originating in the eastern half of the area have spread into Alberta. In the past this has caused some serious problems and poor inter-provincial relations. With more aircraft now in use or on standby, this situation has greatly improved in recent years.
Fires can vary from fast-spreading surface fires due to dense ground cover to slow-spreading deep-seated fires in deep moss or muskeg which have been known to survive over winter and revive again the following spring.
In any protection or management planning in this area, the risk of fire spreading from the southwest must be considered of fundamental importance.
FIRE OCCURRENCE AND ACREAGE BURNED: Early Dominion Government maps of the Peace River Block designated large areas (40% – 50%) of the Block, as Forest Reserves. Although these were not always timbered lands, considerable timber was contained in these reserves. Frequently they included lands which were more difficult to clear or less desirable agricultural lands.
The Pacific Great Eastern Railway resources survey of 1931 reported 3,850,800 MBM of Merchantable timber in the Peace River Block. In 1931 the District Forester suggested an elementary survey to obtain an estimate of timber values of the Peace River region area. Ten years later there was still no information, and another District Forester requested a survey be made. It was not until 1953 that the Forest Service Surveys Division was able to carry out this basic inventory.
LOSS FROM FOREST FIRES: The Pacific Great Eastern survey mentioned in the preceding section stated there were 3,850,800 M.B.M. of timber. By 1945 some 3,350,000 M.B.M. of this had been destroyed by fire.
In 1950 three fires alone burned over 1,200,000 acres in B.C. One of these, the “Wasp” fire, started northeast of Blueberry and spread northeasterly, crossing the 120th Meridian on a fifty-seven mile front and burning a further 2,500,000 acres in Alberta. The “Gundy” fire started west of the Alaska Highway in the late July of that year. It remained a small fire until September 19th when it exploded and ran approximately 56 miles in four days, crossing the Alaska Highway and running northeasterly to cover 246,530 acres.
In 1958, 110 fires in the Peace River burned 1,101,346 acres and that year the Fort Nelson area received almost no rainfall for four months. One old time Ranger remarked that year that damage was high, but that it was relatively low compared with that incurred in the 1930’s and 40’s. Records of damage and losses are incomplete for the early years. Little documented information is available as most fires in the early days were not even recorded.
FOREST RESOURCES OF THE AREA: Surveys completed in 1953 by the Forest Surveys and Inventory Division indicated a total of 9,218,277 acres of productive forest land in the Peace River, as follows:
Mature Timber . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2,692,411 acres
Immature Timber . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3,154,108 acres
Not satisfactory Restocked . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3,371,758 acres
The volume of mature timber, 9.1 inches and over, was estimated at 6,378,819,000 cubic feet; this included cotton wood and other deciduous species.
MANAGED UNITS: There are at present three established sustained yield units in this area, and the remaining unregulated area is contained in five proposed units. The establishment of these proposed units will depend on future developments in the area.
The three established units contain a total area of 6,611,734 acres, of which 4,745,104 acres are productive forest land, with an allowable annual cut of 13,900,000 cubic feet.
The breakdown is as follows:
Productive area . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2,029,446 acres
Total area . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2,759,714 acres
Allowable Annual Cut . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5,000 M.C.F.
Productive Area . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,518,682 acres
Total area . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2,007,514 acres
Allowable Annual Cut . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5,400 M.C.F.
Productive Area . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,196,976 acres
Total areas . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,844,506 acres
Allowable Annual Cut . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3,500 M.C.F.
FOREST PROTECTION POLICY — 1930 THROUGH THE DEPRESSION: The Ranger in-charge at this time described the Forest Service as the “Phantom Service”. With only one man to administer the whole area, the organization was theoretical only. In one season there was farming development taking place on 553 separate parcels of land, with 4,000 persons using fire for land clearing.
This was one of the reasons for establishing the Free Burning Area. The policy was to fight only these fires which threatened accessible timber values near settled areas, and then only on a limited scale. There was a feeling at the time that all forest protection activities should be withdrawn from the Peace River.
THE CHANGES OF THE 1940’S: World War II brought the American Army to construct the Alaska Highway through the centre of this vast area. This development not only increased access to the area, but it also created a number of protection problems that resulted in the first staff increase in almost a decade and a review of protection policy. The policy now became to fight all fires threatening accessible timber and as well as a narrow band roughly ten miles on both sides of the Alaska Highway. Inaccessible fires were fought only when timber values were immediately threatened and where they could be saved with a token force.
MAJOR CHANGES OF THE LATE 1950’S and 1950’s: The policy of the early 1950’s did not change much as illustrated by the following quote from the 1956 Sloan Report: “The present fire-fighting policy must be briefly described as follows:
1. Major fires will only be fought when merchantable timber values are involved, major fires in remote areas where costs would be prohibitive will not be fought.
2. In the “No Permit” area fighting fires is the exception and only carried on when timber
values are involved. The farming population is responsible for its own protection. The Forest Service does not feel justified in spending money on the protection of private property, and does not consider itself a rural fire brigade, although assistance is given.
3. Elsewhere, in the enormous area north of Latitude 57, as a general rule, fires were fought only when they can be controlled by a ten-man crew.”
Policy started to change in 1959, and by 1960 a complete new policy was in effect. This policy was roughly as follows:
1. In the Chetwynd, Dawson Creek, Fort St. John, Blueberry areas, full action
will be taken on all fires; except those lit in the free burning area, where action will be limited to those fires threatening timber values.
2. In the Narroway River – Red Willow – Wapiti River area, south of Dawson
Creek. Take full action on and responsibility for fires. Co-operate fully
with the Alberta Forest Service on fires in this area along or near the
3. Alaska Highway, north of Blueberry; take action on all fires which offer
reasonable access and where known values are threatened to limit of
available manpower and equipment.
4. Northeastern corner of B.C.: attempt to suppress fires in this region only
when staff and equipment not engaged in suppression work elsewhere.
During the 1967 fire season, full scale action was taken on nearly all fires
in the area, except, those confined to muskeg areas of no value – and
those in the Free Burning Area.
THE CAUSES OF PREVIOUS POLICY CHANGES: Prior to the construction of the Alaska Highway, access north of Charlie Lake was practically non-existent. The construction of the Alaska Highway completely changed the situation.
Forest resources which were previously inaccessible and of no market value assumed commercial importance. It was possible to foresee their ultimate harvesting and forest industrial expansion in the area. Therefore, a change in forest protection policy was necessary to protect these resources. This resulted in the first serious thoughts being given to forest protection of the Peace River Block.
Oil and gas company branch roads off the Alaska Highway into such areas as the Blueberry Field further opened up and supplied access to previously inaccessible timber stands. This development coupled with the highway construction forced a change in policy.
ARRIVAL OF THE P.G.E. AND THE HART HIGHWAY: The completion of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway and the Hart Highway in the southern portion of the Peace River not only opened up this region to development of its timber resources but supplied an outlet for these forest products to the Pacific seaports. The timber resources of the southern Peace were valuable and had to be protected; hence the addition of the Chetwynd Ranger District.
INCREASED INTEREST IN THE FOREST RESOURCES: Improved access coupled with a growing demand for lumber caused an increased interest in developing the forest resources of the area. This increased interest and demand resulted in the establishment of managed forest units such as the Blueberry, Moberly and Peace Sustained Yield Units. Increased fire protection became essential to protect and maintain the allowable cuts in these units.
FARMERS AND RANCHERS: The main economic interest in and adjacent to the Peace River Block and the area immediately surrounding it was agricultural. The primary concern was to develop farmland as quickly as possible. The philosophy of unlimited burning spread from the free burning area into the zones adjacent to timberlands and resulted in the destruction of large volumes of timber. A change in policy was necessary to stop this indiscriminate burning.
ADVANCES IN ALBERTA: While fire protection was practically ignored in the BC Peace, Alberta was establishing a progressive forest protection policy for their adjacent area. They had no free burning areas. They had greatly increased staff and detection facilities. They also zoned the land into forestland and other lands, with a policy to fight all fires in or threatening any forest zones. They had enlarged aircraft use program, employing both helicopters and fixed wing and establishing numerous fire emergency airstrips and fuel caches.
Although these advances were a factor in our policy changes, the greatest impetus was their expressed toll of our unfought fires spreading across the border into their territory. On the basis of past experiences and because of the much higher value they placed on their limited forest resources, they considered this as a serious threat. This helped bring about a fire fighting policy change, particularly in the southern portion of the area.
PEACE RIVER POWER DEVELOPMENT: The development of the Peace River Dam focused attention on the area, pointed up possible industrial development, and created a crash timber salvage problem in the area to be flooded.
As with any major development in a forested area it also increases protection problems. This resulted in the establishment of a new Ranger district with headquarters at Hudson Hope, later transferred to Finlay Forks and still later to MacKenzie.
This is the history of the Forest Service in the Peace River Area to 1967.