1958 Yukon Nuggets
The Fires of ‘58
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. The summer of 1958 was a hot, dry one across the Yukon. A time to bask in the pleasures of the great outdoors. The great outdoors, however, were closed.
They started in early June, those devastating forest fires of 1958. One of the first to break out was in the 10 Mile area of the Dawson road, near Lake Laberge. Here the Canadian airforce had been detonating unexploded bombs which had been dropped during military exercises the year before. The RCAF was heavily criticized for its actions, but refused to take the blame. The fire raged out of control over a wide area.
It was quickly joined by huge forest fires at Mendenhall on the Alaska Highway, at Fox Creek and Carmacks on the Dawson Road, south near Teslin, and a particulary nasty fire at Sqaunga Lake. The southern Yukon was ablaze. Commissioner F.H. Collins called for outside help and forest specialists were flown in from national parks across the country.
All travel off the main roads was banned. In early July, the Laberge fire continued to rage out of control and had joined up with the fires burning at Mendenhall and Stony Creek. It now raced through the Takhini valley and destroyed buildings at the Hot Springs. I recall, on a hot July day, watching a towering plume of smoke over Whitehorse, rising many thousands of feet. It looked like a cloud caused by a nuclear explosion.
Falling ash covered the streets, building and cars. The air was heavy, hot and dry. Work crews cut a huge fire break just north of Camp Takhini, but expressed little hope that it would curtail the raging inferno. On July 17, Whitehorse Mayor Gordon Cameron declared a state of emergency and ordered all Whitehorse residents to pack their belongings and be prepared either to drive to Carcross or to take the train.
My Dad packed up what he could into the back of our 1952 Chevy panel. We were ready to leave behind most of our worldly possessions. But later in that week a minor miracle occurred. It came in the form of cooler weather with considerable rain. The 30-mile fire front advancing on Whitehorse came within five miles of the White Pass tank farm before its advance was curtailed.
Firefighters now had there chance to contain the fire. And they did. At the end of July, Mayor Cameron called off the state of emergency. But in other parts of the Yukon, fires continued to rage out of control. Heroic efforts were used to save Rancheria. Finally in late August, the fires were out.
And once again people were allowed to travel off the main roads. But it was too late for any outdoor enjoyment in that summer of 1958. And the incredible devastation caused to forests and wildlife was visible for many many years to come.
I remember the huge towers of smoke and ash. During the day, the wind blew from the south, so Whitehorse was clear & sunny. Then, in the evening, the wind would switch around to the north, and the smoke would come, and burned spruce needles would rain down on us.
For us kids, this switch in the wind direction had a harsh effect on the baseball schedule. We would start a game at 6:30 or 7:00, under clear skies. After a few innings, the breeze would switch, and soon the sun was blocked out by the huge cloud of blue-black smoke. Several games had to be postponed due to darkness – at 8:00 pm, in July.
Another vivid memory – on a smoky Sunday, Jim Light and I went fishing at Tagish. There was a strong breeze blowing from the south, and the sun was dull orange. It looked like a cold day, with the winds blowing out of the mountains. However, the breeze was hot, and we trolled the lake shirtless. The smoke and heat must have been from the Teslin fire.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.