In the summer and early fall of 1950, a system of fires in northern Alberta and northeastern British Columbia burned approximately 4 million acres becoming the single largest recorded fire in North America. Known as the Chinchaga fire, it produced smoke that drifted into the upper atmosphere and blanketed portions of Canada and the United States in late September, resulting in the Great Smoke Pall. Thick, black smoke turned the skies dark at midday, leaving some residents wondering if there had been a nuclear attack. The effects of the Great Smoke Pall were felt as far away as Europe.
The Chinchaga fire (also known as the Wisp fire or “Fire 19”) is thought to be human-caused and began near Fort St. John in Alberta, Canada. It was an exceptionally hot and dry spring, and when the fire started on June 1, 1950, it was not highly publicized. Following a policy of ignoring fires in unsettled areas, officials let the fire burn unchecked. The blaze developed into a monstrous conflagration, burning throughout the summer, and expanding as winds and cold fronts moved through.
In September 1950, winds fanned the flames, causing a dramatic fire expansion. Dense smoke rose high in the air where it hit an atmospheric trough and enveloped Ontario, then drifted towards Ohio and America’s east coast. On September 24, people in Ontario reported unusual colors in the sky. By noon, smoke darkened the skies, and streetlights turned on.
Later that afternoon, the smoke arrived along the eastern seaboard. In New York City, pilots landing at LaGuardia Airport reported zero visibility, requiring an instrument landing. At 4:00 p.m., people living in Pennsylvania noticed strange colors in the sky. Within 30 minutes, the skies turned completely dark. The smoke was high enough in the atmosphere, and nobody could smell it, leaving some to wonder if there had been a nuclear attack. Others thought a forecasted total moon eclipse had arrived earlier than expected. People described seeing the moon turn purple. Calls flooded switchboards as many thought the world was coming to an end.
The smoke continued to Western Europe, where smoke particles high in the air made the sun appear blue, leading to more fears of a nuclear attack. In late October 1950, rains and cooler weather finally extinguished the fire. The panic created by the Chinchaga fire led the Canadian Forest Service to adopt new fire suppression methods to prevent another similar occurrence.
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