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500-year timeline marked alongside an old-growth Douglas fir slab in Qualicum Beach

Tree sprouted following forest fire in 1515

It was in about 1515 that the seedlings of a local Douglas fir sprouted under warm sunlight following a forest fire in Qualicum Beach.

Tom Whitfield decided those seeds mattered and has spent years putting together their story.

Now, a 500-year-old timeline sits beside a slab of the tree in the Qualicum Beach Heritage Forest, a covenant-protected area spotted with coastal Douglas fir, western red cedar, hemlock, grand fir and Sitka spruce.

“The overall idea was to put the life of this very old, large tree into our own historical perspective,” said Whitfield, the project leader and president of the Brown Property Preservation Society.

The historical timeline is meant to show the most notable events during the life of the tree in relation to local, as well as worldwide, change.

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Whitfield said the idea of making a tree timeline spans as far back as his childhood in Ontario.

“They had a tree round, like a slab, with dates on it. And then as I grew up I remember going back to that museum and seeing this great big [slab], and for there it was probably like an oak tree, with various really old dates on it,” he said. “So, that always stuck with me.”

Fast forward to the present day, Whitfield has 30 years of being a forester with a background in forest ecology under his belt, as well as a career in real estate. He’s lived in Qualicum Beach for more than 20 years.

The push to actually make the timeline came in 2008, when the conservation covenant to protect the 50-acre forest was signed.

Between 1996 and 2004, the Brown Property Preservation Society raised money through public donations, as well as receiving money from the town, to purchase the forest to save it from development. Whitfield said it was an enormous effort to raise that much money from the public.

“I don’t know of another place in Canada that [publically] raised $1.3 million — the town kicked in [around] $600,000, but I don’t know of another community that fundraised for all those years,” he said. “It was the mom and pops of here, and it was 20 bucks, 50 bucks, 100 bucks.”

After the 2008 signing, Whitfield went looking for a stump — one that was sound and not rotted.

“I looked at every stump in that forest, that 50-acre forest, and found one and luckily it was not far from the trail edge so we could actually get at it,” he said.

The slab was then stored and dried until Whitfield, with input from Qualicum First Nation, a group of homeschool kids and some members of the BPPS, started putting together the timeline. He calls it a “community effort,” and said the town of Qualicum Beach parks departments, public works and maintenance departments were very supportive of the project.

“The timeline shows some of the significant events that took place between the years of 1515 to 1915. When this tree first germinated and began to grow in full sunlight after the area was burnt in about 1515, it was about then that the early explorer from Spain, Ferdinand Magellan, sailed around the world for the very first time in 1520,” he said.

Ultimately, the timeline is able to contextualize time and history through rings on a tree.

From a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami off of Vancouver Island in 1700, to the second smallpox outbreak of 1862 that devastated Island Indigenous people, the five centuries-old tree lived through a lot of change.

The Douglas fir slab and historical timeline can be found at the kiosk located along the walking trails of the Heritage Forest.

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