The Great Fire of 1908 nearly wiped out Fernie, killing 10 people and destroying more than 1000 buildings in just 90 minutes.
The town was just 10-years-old when the blaze tore through the area on a hot and windy August day.
The people of Fernie were in mourning after a series of tragedies, including a cave in at a mine the previous day, which killed four men.
West of Fernie, a fire had been smouldering away and for 10 days, the town was shrouded in smoke. Around 10 a.m. on August 1, the wind picked up and the fire started to spread.
“As it consumes the Elk Lumber Company, the fire grows into what people described then as a tornado of flame,” said Fernie Museum executive director Ron Ulrich.
“Fernie is quickly surrounded on three sides by fire and the fire department cannot match this fire… Many people ran towards the river. The mayor and some other citizens organize an evacuation to the two train lines where by some stroke of fate, trains stood.”
Despite the huge losses, it was only a matter of days before residents began to rebuild in a display of “indomitable community spirit”, which lives on today.
Now, Fernie has a permanent reminder of the disaster that shaped the community, with a sculpture commemorating the Great Fire installed at The Arts Station.
More than 100 people gathered for the unveiling of “A Hardy Town” on Friday, June 1. Mayor Mary Giuliano said the turnout was “truly wonderful”.
“It shows how much people in Fernie appreciate art,” she said.
“The 1908 fire crushed the community… However, the resilient people of Fernie rebuilt from devastation to the beautiful community that we now can call home.
“We are so excited to showcase a sculpture that depicts a strong-willed and durable community.”
A Hardy Town was created by Fernie-based artist Michael Hepher and Cranbrook’s Paul Reimer.
The project was jointly funded by the City of Fernie and a grant from the B.C. Canada 150: Celebrating B.C. Communities and their Contributions to Canada Grant Program, which stipulated the artwork must commemorate a significant community story. While the theme came pre-packaged, Hepher said there was still plenty of room for artistic interpretation.
“We just started looking through historical material, trying to find visual and emotional images to draw from and I was really struck by the way the buildings kind of gained a new personality,” he said.
“The fire changed them and there were these haunting images of the brick facades with empty windows.”
The sculpture is mostly made of steel, with limestone blocks symbolizing the rebuilding process, and took hundreds of hours to complete.
Hepher, whose great-grandfather settled in the Kootenays in 1908, was thrilled to now have an artwork permanently installed in the town.
“I always think a history of a place affects the future of a place, so ultimately this sculpture is about those intersections, where something is asked of us and we rise to the occasion… Fernie has done that more than once,” he said.