A black-and-white photo shows a forest fire coming down a gully between two hills.
A forest fire pictured in Coldstream in 1921.

The 2023 Fire Season

2023 has been reported as Canada’s worst fire season. Although this fact cannot be denied, it may or may not provide some comfort to know that folks in and around Vernon have been battling blazes for hundreds of years.

Traditionally, the Indigenous inhabitants of the Okanagan-Similkameen areas practiced controlled burning as a means to maintain forest and grassland ecosystems. Once settlers arrived in the area, the Vernon News, then a farm and livestock journal, often featured advice on how to protect one’s property from fire damage. For example, an 1894 article states, in no uncertain terms, that “the cutting and clearing away of the forest for a radius around the settlement sufficient to ensure safety would be neither an expensive nor a laborious undertaking.”

1900s-1910s

A heatwave in May of 1901 wreaked havoc on the Valley, and the South Okanagan was particularly hard-hit. A forest fire near what is now the Nickel Plate Nordic Centre outside of Penticton saw bridges and culverts burn down, and fallen timber litter the road. At the same time, the whole town of Fairview (now a ghost town) came out to fight a fire that was creeping towards their properties down a nearby gully.

In 1912, the newspaper printed “Six Good Rules for Care with Fire in the Mountains,” one of which was a reminder to knock out one’s pipe ashes or throw cigar and cigarette stumps only where there is nothing to catch fire. In 1922, the “cigarette menace” was once again discussed, with the paper reporting that hundreds of the fires recorded that year in Canada were “due to the evil habit of tossing away lighted tobacco.”

1920s-1950s and beyond

Sometime in the late 1920s, Silver Star Mountain experienced a devastating fire, which was unfortunately not unusual for the region as evidenced by the installation of a forest fire lookout at the mountain’s summit more than two decades earlier. In the spring of 1930, Bill Osborn, David Ricardo, and Michael Freeman became among the first to ski down the mountain – and later described seeing a number of snags (still-standing dead trees) that have been destroyed by this fire a few years earlier. 

In July of 1940, a series of forest fires ravaged the Sugar Lake area. Men were pulled away from their homes and work to fight the blazes, which finally abated thanks to heavy rain. In 1950, a mid-summer fire at Kingfisher was finally brought under control after several long weeks. Fires continued to ravage the Okanagan Valley in the years following, including the unforgettable White Rock Lake fire of 2021.

Thankfully, the area’s inhabitants have demonstrated their resiliency in the face of nature’s wrath time-and-time again, helped along at times by some much-needed rain.

 

To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts!

Gwyneth Evans, Head of Archives

 

 

 

 

For the months of June and July, we are thrilled to present a series of blog posts by Collections Intern Rebeka Beganova. Rebeka (she/her) is a post-secondary student with a passion for research, literature, and history. Having completed an Associate of Arts Degree at Okanagan College, she is glad to be joining the MAV team during her last summer in Vernon before heading off to UBC Vancouver. There is no better way to say goodbye to her hometown than to explore its local history!

A display of Vernon fruit at the Spokane Fruit Fair, 1909.

International Renown

With the summer in full swing, Vernon residents are once again reminded of the delicacy that is Okanagan-grown fruit. Fresh produce is a staple in seasonal menus, and it has been for over a century. Even in 1891, fruit production and export was projected as a leading industry in the Okanagan. Lists predicting the most profitable harvests were published in the Vernon News each year, along with detailed diagrams for fruit packing that included satisfying photographs of the desired results (such as the one included here). All the effort for quality and aesthetics was not wasted, as the fame of Okanagan fruit soon reached around the world. In 1905, the Royal Horticultural Society Exhibition in London awarded eight silver medals to produce submissions from the BC area – and five of those went to Okanagan growers.

A black-and-white image of a man wearing a cap and suspenders and standing next to a stack of apple boxes.
An unknown man pictured with stacks of fruit boxes, 1920. Behind the fame of Okanagan fruit was (and is) the labour of countless workers.

Swallow the apples, not the pride

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the glory of the fruit industry became a point of fierce pride for many. Innumerable newspaper articles either explicitly or implicitly compared Vernon produce to that of other places. In the late 1800s, a scheme by American companies was uncovered where they were apparently re-branding Canadian apples as the “best American apples” before shipping out to England. Their own products, along with lower-quality Canadian, were passed off as belonging solely to the latter. The indignation and disgust was clear in local reports of these events.

 A humourous example of how quickly pride could take hold is the time a prosperous peach tree sprung up at Trout Creek. An excited letter from the president of a mining company cropped up in the papers, in which he stated, “I am more convinced than ever that we are quite likely to become a good deal more than small potatoes in peach production.” Keep in mind, this comment came about after witnessing one promising tree. A reply was printed shortly after, where a Mr. Robinson (who, to his credit, at least tasted the peaches) “found them, if anything, larger and of better flavor than [those of] the Lambly ranch.” Simply put, Vernon and surrounding areas felt unbeatable in their industry.

Defending one’s Honour

Nothing raised the fruit growers’ hackles quite like public attacks from the competition. In 1892, the president of the Ontario Fruit-Growers’ Association, Mr. Boulter, reported to the Winnipeg Free Press that there was no Okanagan equal to Ontario produce. In response, a two-column long, front-page article appeared in the Vernon News, praising BC fruit and rebuffing the outspoken commentator. The colourful language included one memorable metaphor, where the passionate statements of a local grower were compared to “some of the Okanagan fruit, hurling at the devoted head of the indiscreet Mr. Boulter.” Similar gripes were displayed against Calgary spokesmen and innocent people remarking about fruit pests.

In the end, perhaps these moments of heated argumentation are to be excused; a reputation, if well-earned, deserves a strong defence. However, as we enjoy the beaches and fruit stands, recall that tempers can boil just as easily as delicious produce under the summer sun.

To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts!

Rebeka Beganova, Collections Intern