5 natural disasters on Vancouver Island to remember
When you look back through its history, Vancouver Island is a dangerous place to live.
Natural disasters imprint on our collective memories—catastrophes like the atmospheric rivers of 2021, the devastating tsunami that hit the Alberni valley in 1964, the earthquake on Forbidden Plateau in 1946 that caused brick chimneys in the Comox Valley to collapse, the perhaps lesser-known forest fire that ripped through Merville in 1922, and even the record-breaking snowfall of 1996.
But other phenomena have slipped our memories…
1. The Time the Island Burned Tip to Tip
Rain-drenched Islanders may be surprised to learn that droughts are somewhat common on Vancouver Island. Since the 1500s, 21 severe droughts have occurred in this rainforest.
With drought comes fire. Devastating fires occur every 150–350 years. These fires burn huge swaths of land. In 1668 a fire consumed most of the timber between Comox and Campbell River (and again in that area more famously in 1938). Over the 100-year period from 1550–1650, practically the entire island burned tip to tip.
Part of the reason Doug fir flourishes here is their thick bark. On old growth trees it can be nine inches thick—too thick for fire to penetrate. The tree’s canopy is also too high for flames to reach. Since Doug fir is shade intolerant it proliferates after other species are razed by fire.
You can still see charred bark on old growth trees today from ancient fires. Next time you’re in Cathedral Grove, at Miracle Beach Provincial Park, or anywhere else with old growth Doug fir, look closely and you’ll see the charred evidence of these destructive events.
2. The Other Big One
Indigenous communities’ oral histories from up and down the BC coast all feature a similar story—a great shaking followed by a great flood.
At 9 o’clock in the evening on Tuesday, January 26, in the year 1700, the big one hit. On this frigid night the earth shook for hours.
People became sick from the constant movement, homes collapsed, and the mountaintops slid into valley bottoms. In tsunami zones, a giant wave swept villages into the sea and wiped out everything 20 meters above sea level.
Anyone who was caught in the water and managed to survive faced sub-zero temperatures.
Big earthquakes like this happen every 300 years or so…
3. Ucluelet Tornado
The west coast of Vancouver Island isn’t the first place you’d expect a tornado, but on March 7, 1966, a tornado ripped through the seaside town of Ucluelet.
The 200 km/hr winds came as a shock to residents as a two-car garage was hurtled into the ocean. Roofs on several buildings were peeled off, boats capsized, and a metal spike embedded itself into a blackboard at a school being attended by students.
The wind knocked out the power, and that night a snowstorm hit Hwy 4. Nobody could reach or leave the town. Even though it caught the town by surprise, no deaths were reported.
4. Falling Stars
On September 5, 1908, fourteen-year-old Willie McKinnon barely escaped death. According to a story entitled “Message from Mars” in the Cowichan Leader, a meteorite struck the ground eight feet from where he stood.
As the chunk of rock plummeted to earth, he had been working in the garden. He heard a rumbling but had assumed it was a train. The meteor strike sent rocks flying and caused a mini earthquake. The teen rushed into the house.
His parents came outside, and there lodged in a crater appeared to be an ordinary boulder about ten inches in diameter, except it was so hot they couldn’t touch it.
The smoking meteor was smooth as a marble except for strange, deeply scored markings. The father thought it looked like hieroglyphics—a message from mars.
5. Port Alice Landslide
In 1975 the entire community of Port Alice (a population of 1500 then) loaded onto buses and were evacuated as the mountain perched next to town let loose mud, rocks, and trees.
250mm of rain had fallen in the previous 24 hours and it showed no sign of slowing down. The creeks became thick mudslides and cut off the mill where a skeleton crew fought to save the town’s single major employer from destruction.
The mayor called the scene a “disaster area” as mud came against the homes built high on the hills. Only two years earlier a similar but less destructive landslide prompted the town to construct berms, but these were quickly overrun. Despite extensive damage, nobody was killed in either of the slides.
Today Port Alice has a new series of berms to protect the town. Landslides remain one of the town’s top threats.
Know of other Natural Disasters on the Island not mentioned here? Share in the comments.
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