Huge fire destroys New Westminster heritage buildings

New Westminster fire fighters are battling to contain a fire on Columbia Street that has already destroyed the old Copp's Shoe store

The historic Copp's Shoes building at Mackenzie and Columbia was destroyed early Thursday.

The historic Copp's Shoes building at Mackenzie and Columbia was destroyed early Thursday.

New Westminster firefighters have contained a massive blaze at Columbia and McKenzie streets that destroyed the old Copp’s Shoe store and spread to nearby buildings. The fire was so big the New West fire department called for help from the Burnaby and Delta fire departments.

The fire reportedly started around 4 a.m. and may have ignited on the roof, where workers have been doing maintenance work in recent days.

The fire forced closure of Front Street and Columbia from Fourth to Eighth Streets. In addition, Sixth Street from Carnarvon to Front was also closed to traffic.

A thick pall of smoke continues to hang over Downtown, extending down the waterfront, and the smell could be detected in parts of southeast Burnaby.

Copp’s Shoes closed last year when the owners retired. It was replaced by a wedding shop. Other businesses destroyed include Norm’s Barber Shop, a shoe repair shop, the British Columbia offices of ACORN advocacy group, Not Too Shabby Antiques, Fat Paint, Front St. Emporium, Le Saigonnais restaurant and Localo Living.

No one was injured in the fire, although one business owner’s cat, Lincoln, was rescued by firefighters from 650 Columbia St. and reunited with its owner.

Fire and city officials are concerned about the extent of water damage to other buildings in the historic Downtown area. Restaurants in the area were also told not to serve tap water. Fire Chief Tim Armstrong said the fire quickly escalated, and within 45 minutes there was a total collapse of the building. Fire crews went on a defensive attack, trying to prevent it from spreading to the adjacent building.

“All we got were initial reports of flames on the roof of the building,” said Armstrong.

Construction crews were working on the roof during the week, Armstrong said, and there were several propane tanks there, which may have exploded. New West fire continues to investigate the cause. A photo from resident Alix Coté, taken at about 4 a.m. shows flames emerging from the rear (Front Street) side of the building.

VIDEO: See structure collapse at 1:08 and 2:30 mark.

An aerial ladder truck from Delta was also deployed to the fire scene, and Burnaby fire provided New West coverage.

There were nine apparatus and 40 firefighters on the scene, Armstrong said.

It was a difficult fire to fight, he added, because there’d been a lot of work on the buildings over the years with portions added on.

The structure was built in 1904 by E.L. Lewis.

It has housed Copp’s New West Shoes since 1925. The store featured wooden floors and racks and racks of shoes along the walls from floor to the 18-foot high ceiling that could be accessed by wooden ladders on tracks. Owner Terry Brine, grandson of the store’s founder J.P. Copp, closed the business Jan. 1 when he retired and a bridal shop opened in its place.

“I feel so badly for them,” said Brine. “It’s a piece of New West history. Downtown New West was looking so good, it’s a kick in the teeth because the Downtown was coming on strong.”

Brine co-owned the building with Bill Lewis. While he said they’re probably rebuild, “you can’t replace history.”

Mayor Wayne Wright, who was on the scene early in the morning, said “that corner is one of the most important corners of the city.” Replacing the lost buildings is “going to be a challenge.”

Throughout the fire, the United Gospel Mission across the street was able to serve 160 breakfasts until the gas was disconnected. They then served breakfast to-go, before temporarily closing the kitchen. A mobile mission was dispatched from Vancouver to New West to provide support.

The mission encouraged guests, especially those with respiratory issues, to stay away from the smoke-filled scene, but did open its doors as a place for emergency workers as a place to take a break and get sandwiches and water.

Thursday’s fire was the first major fire since the Woodland’s Centre Block building was destroyed in a massive blaze in July 2008. A year earlier, in September 2007, a large blaze destroyed a building under construction as part of the Copperstone development in Sapperton.

City of New Westminster spokesperson Blair Fryer said the city aimed to retore power to businesses on the south side of Columbia Street—and along Front Street—between Fourth and Sixth streets by 4 p.m. Thursday. Businesses on the south side between Sixth and Begbie streets—and along Front Street—(the section where the fire occurred) should have power restored by Saturday.

—with file from Grant Granger and Chris Bryan

Surrey North Delta Leader