This postcard of Baker St. in the 1930s shows just how barren Elephant Mountain still was following the great forest fire of 1883.

COLUMN: Literary debates and catastrophic fires

A story about the University of BC offering a writing course in Nelson this fall sparked a few unexpected debates on Facebook.

A story last week about the University of BC offering a writing course in Nelson this fall sparked a few unexpected debates on Facebook.

While she’s enthusiastic about writing opportunities in the region, Selkirk faculty member Linda Harwood disputed the notion the course is the first of its kind in more than 30 years: “Selkirk College already offers university-level creating writing courses, a diploma and an associate arts degree program fully transferable to universities of the last two years of a bachelors degree,” she said.

Someone else, however, replied that those programs are available in Castlegar, not Nelson.

Secondly, this quote, in relation to Nelson’s economic downturn following the closure of David Thompson University Centre and Kootenay Forest Products in 1984, was questioned: “Twenty five per cent of all the people in town left. I would say maybe a quarter of the houses were for sale.”

I don’t know how to verify the last statement, but as for the former, we do have some census data.

In 1981, Nelson proper had a population of 9,143. In 1986, it had 8,113 — a decrease of 1,030, which represents 11.2 per cent. So it was more like a loss of one-eighth. Not a quarter, but still dramatic.

Hard to say if the picture looks any different if you include the suburbs, Areas E and F of the Regional District of Central Kootenay. I couldn’t find breakdowns by rural areas dating back that far.

WHISTLING PAST THE GRAVEYARD: Will Johnson’s column last week on his rude awakening to climate change made me think about what is bound to be the greatest consequence for our area.

Last week, record daily high temperatures of 27.9 and 30.3 degrees were established at the Southeast Fire Centre in Castlegar, breaking old marks set in 1985. This month is also set to go down as the driest on record in West Kootenay and the snowpack is at its lowest level in 30 years, only 55 per cent of normal. That kind of scenario could set us up for a devastating fire season.

Since 2008 we’ve gotten off almost scot-free, partly because of several incredibly wet springs. There have been a few larger fires that resulted in evacuation alerts, such as the Slocan Park blaze last summer (seen at left in a Dan Szabo photo), but no property losses.

Fortunately, Nelson has done a great deal of fuel mitigation work in recent years. Other projects have also been completed in the Regional District of Central Kootenay. However, a report completed for the RDCK in 2013 suggested at the present rate it could take over 50 years to reduce the wildfire risk on high priority Crown lands alone.

It noted about $800,000 is spent annually to address about 60 hectares of high-risk forest, but over 3,300 hectares remained untreated — plus another 11,000 hectares on private land.

It’s the equivalent of seismic upgrades to Lower Mainland schools that won’t be finished before 2030, even though a major earthquake could hit tomorrow. Catastrophic wildfire won’t wait for us to finish our preventative work. It’s happened before, but the last time there were few if any buildings to burn.

Here’s surveyor Arthur S. Farwell commenting on his trip to Kootenay Lake in August 1883: “The whole country appeared to be on fire, and the smoke so dense it was scarcely possible to see anything at a distance of 200 yards.”

Fellow surveyor Gilbert Malcolm Sproat recalled only a single wet day between July 23 and Nov. 2 of that year: “The smoke prevented my seeing the shape of the mountains.”

It took decades for foliage on Elephant Mountain to grow back. In later years, prospectors were often blamed for the barren hillsides around the lake, but lightning was the more likely cause.

TRUDEAU’S BLESSING: Before Don Johnston was announced as the federal Liberal candidate for Kootenay-Columbia last week, New Democrat Wayne Stetski mused in the Invermere Valley Echo about securing an endorsement from Liberal leader Justin Trudeau based on their long friendship.

Steski was district manager for BC Parks when Trudeau’s brother Michel was killed in an avalanche in Kokanee Glacier Park in 1998. He worked with Justin and the rest of the Trudeau family on a $1.1 million national fundraiser to support the Canadian Avalanche Centre and build the new Kokanee Glacier Cabin in the memory of Michel and others who have died in the park.

The two have renewed acquaintances a few times since. As mayor of Cranbrook, Stetski briefly met with Trudeau in Ottawa during a Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference, and Trudeau visited him in Cranbrook in 2013 as part of a tour that also brought him to Nelson (seen above in a Bob Hall photo).

Although Stetski didn’t ask Trudeau for his endorsement directly, others did.

“Some longtime Liberal supporters sent an email to Justin suggesting that the Liberals should have me as their candidate along with the NDP in the riding,” he told 103.5 Juice FM. However, he wasn’t surprised the party opted to field its own candidate: “Political parties always want to be able to say they have candidates in every riding.”

Stetski says he likes and respects Trudeau, but prefers the New Democrat banner.

“He’s an individual I enjoy on a one-to-one basis [but] from my perspective, Tom Mulcair is a stronger leader at this point and certainly a better parliamentarian. I think at this stage, at least, he would make a better prime minister and a great prime minister.”

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