Memories of the 1931 Camp McKinney Fire

One of the worst forest fires in recent memory occurred in the southern interior in the summer of 1931. It was the Camp McKinney fire, and eye- witnesses described it as the most intense they had ever seen.

An account in the Penticton Herald stated there was not the slightest doubt in the minds of fire rangers and officials of the Canadian Forestry Association that the fire was deliberately set. A check on weather conditions indicated there were no electrical storms in the area at the time.

This was the era of the Great Depression. There were thousands of men traveling back and forth across Canada looking for employment. It was at that time that the Liberal government opened a relief camp on the site of the present Oliver airport. Men were supplied with the bare necessities of life: shoes, overalls, straw hats, and food and a place to sleep, for which they were paid one dollar per day.

Fire fighters were paid twenty-five cents per hour. H. Ablet of the Canadian Forestry Association was in the district shortly after the out- break. With officials, he inspected the ground where the fire originated, and they came to the unanimous conclusion that matches were the cause. Ablet was astounded at the destitution and damage caused by the conflagration.

The Penticton Herald reported that: "Constable D.A. McDonald of the B.C. Provincial Police, stationed at Oliver, arrested a suspected firebug on a warrant sworn out by the fire supervisor, Mr. McKlusky. This man was alleged to have been caught in the act of setting a fire on the Kehoe prop- erty on Anarchist Mountain. Police say he is a transient, speaks with a bro- ken accent and was employed as a fire fighter. When arrested, he was in the local jungle near the railway yards at Penticton. "

Continued the Herald: "Rumours have been current that the fire should have been controlled at the outset, and some verification of these statements would be that J. H. Lehman, the local fire warden, was relieved of his position. Harry Stevens of Midway was appointed in his place...Local stores rushed to supply provisions for the fire fighters. A local storekeeper, Mrs. Bill Griffin, was busy filling large grocery orders. She said she stayed up one night to can cases of tomatoes, part of a grocery order,"

In Oliver, the Hill brothers, Ole and Lawrence, were kept busy with their truck, hauling supplies and men to the scene of the fire. Men were also brought from Penticton by truck and rushed to the fire.

Of vital importance to the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys was the West Kootenay power line. A crew under the supervision of Howard Foster and Duffy Tremblay worked hard patrolling the right-of-way, putting out spot fires and protecting the power poles. The poles were protected somewhat by the concrete collars in which they were set.

I have forgotten the exact date, but in early August, with another group of men, I was delivered to Camp McKinney, the centre of activity.  I estimate there were at least seventy-five men, including the West Kootenay crew, working out of the camp at that time. It was hot and very dry and a heavy pall of smoke hung over the area. Headquarters was a well-weathered building made from wide rough planks, located on the north side of the road. It was no doubt one of the original buildings and was occupied by a prospector known as "Gunsight Grant" before being taken over by fire crews. This was also the cookhouse. Long plank tables were improvised to feed the men. Lawrence Hill was in charge of cooking. Lunches were delivered to men on the fire line. One of the crew much in demand was the water boy, who patrolled the fire guard with a packsack holding several gallons of water.

The fire warden was Mr. Bodman, a rancher in the area. Timekeeper was David Briscoe, a fruit grower in Oliver. Wages were twenty-five cents per hour. The timekeeper was quite generous with the hours. Conditions at times demanded men had to remain on fire guards for long hours.

We were urgently called together one morning and informed that the fire was out of control, and we would have to vacate immediately. No time to collect our meagre belongings, spare clothes and blankets. What was left of the town of McKinney, plus provisions, food, tools and two West Kootenay trucks were all engulfed in flames that day. Bridges were burned out and the road was cut off. We walked the power line to Rock Creek (about twelve miles), where we were delivered by truck to our next camp. It was on the north side of Rock Creek several miles up the canyon, adjacent to a ranch owned by Billy Munch, a bachelor who was an interesting and rugged individual. He was cradling a field of oats when we arrived. As the fire approached the area, he hitched up his team and ploughed several furrows as a fire guard around some of his property.

The weather continued hot and dry with a heavy cloud of smoke. As the fire became more threatening, Bodman was worried about a group of men working in the canyon. He asked three of us, Johnny Haggart, Shorty Graves and me to go into the canyon and bring them out.

By the time we reached the creek, a strong hot wind was blowing. It sounded as though a freight train was coming up the canyon fast. My companions had been placer mining and knew the area. We just made it to an old, abandoned tunnel as the fire crowned over us. Fire was roaring through the tree tops, with burning embers flying hundreds of feet ahead and igniting everything in their path. Fire creates its own draft. I would estimate it was travelling at thirty or forty miles per hour. The other crew were aware of the danger and got out safely, as we did. As the fire sub- sided, we were able to pick our way back to camp.

Our next camp was at James Lake, five or six miles north of Rock Creek. The lake was on private property owned by the Howard Smith family, who were cattle ranchers. This was a mop-up operation, building and patrolling fire guards. Nights were cool and frosty; it was cold getting out of the sleeping bag at the ring of the breakfast bell. Red Williams was in charge of the camp. He was reputed to be one of the last of the river men, that was when the Kettle River was first logged. Louis Lasalle, a Frenchman, was the cook. As the breakfast bell rang out, his call was heard, "Birdies are singing, sun is shining, daylight in the swamp, come and get it!"

One of the interesting parts of the experience was seeing wildlife close up and often. While dozing by a big tree one day with an axe, I woke to have a curious black bear watching me from about twenty feet away. This was the first time I had seen flying squirrels. They are nocturnal and rarely seen during the day.

About the tenth of September I was paid off, presented with a ticket via Kettle Valley Railway from Midway to Penticton, and eventually reimbursed somewhat for my burned sleeping bag and clothes.

The year 1931 was before the era of aerial spotters and water bombers. The fire could only be approached and dealt with from Highway 3 on Anarchist Mountain or from the rough McKinney Road.

The area devastated by the fire can be roughly estimated by its known extremities. From Bridesville, it swept through the Conkle Lake area ten miles to the north. From Rock Creek Canyon and James Lake on the east, to the vicinity of the McCuddy Ranch east of Oliver, is approximately fifteen miles.

Suffice to say there were many square miles of valuable timber destroyed by the inferno as well as many birds and animals.

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