Sunday’s fire in White Rock was the worst fire the city has seen in many decades. In terms of the impact on people, it may go down as the worst ever.
More than 60 homes in an apartment complex at Pacific Avenue and Johnston Road have been destroyed or damaged. More than 100 people are displaced. It appears likely that the buildings have been so badly damaged they will be torn down and rebuilt, and those who were displaced will be out of their homes for more than a year.
Thankfully, there was only one injury – a resident broke his leg while leaving the building. Everyone else, including all the firefighters, were uninjured.
The community rallied around the evacuees quickly. The residents who were at home when the fire broke out about 4:30 a.m. were forced to escape with very little, other than the clothes on their backs and their pets. Most were taken to Centennial Arena, which was set up as an evacuation centre. Donations of food and clothing came in quickly, and temporary accommodation was arranged.
The fire had a major impact on the White Rock water system and may again put into question the wisdom of buying the White Rock water utility. The reservoir was drawn down so drastically because of the huge amount of water needed to fight the fire. Some residents had no water in their homes later in the day, while others had just a trickle. A boil water advisory was issued because of the large draw-down.
Had White Rock been part of the Metro Vancouver water system, this likely would not have happened, as the supply of water would not have been so severely compromised. While the city did use its back-up supply from Surrey, which gets its water from Metro Vancouver, on Sunday, clearly the emergency caused much more of a water draw-down than expected.
A huge thank you goes to the White Rock firefighters and those from Surrey who backed them up in responding to this major fire. Their hard work and professionalism is greatly appreciated.
There have been a number of major fires in White Rock over the years. The worst ones were in the earliest years, when much of the community was forested and there was no fire department.
Fires started as a result of logging and bush clearing did major damage in 1910, 1915 and 1918. The latter one threatened the White Rock school on Johnston and Roper.
In 1927 and 1930, major fires along what is now Marine Drive destroyed a large number of businesses, and on Sept. 11, 1931, one of the businesses that had been spared in the earlier fires, the Blue Moon Dance Pavilion, was destroyed by fire.
These fires were a major factor in the establishment of the first fire brigade in 1933. Over the years, this volunteer fire brigade obtained equipment and was able to deal with many major fires. In 1935, the Legion building on the pier burned and the pier was damaged. There were numerous major fires in the 1940s and 1950s, including one in 1956 that damaged the Army, Navy and Air Force veterans hall on Marine Drive.
Perhaps one of the most ironic fires occurred shortly after Harry Douglass was elected mayor of White Rock in 1959. Running on an economy platform, he disbanded the paid fire department. Shortly afterwards, his commercial building on Pacific Avenue, across the street from where Sunday’s fire took place, was completely destroyed by fire. Response time was a factor in allowing the fire to take hold.
In 1979, a major fire destroyed the Chit Chat Café and adjacent businesses on Marine Drive – a building that went back to the days of the Campbell River mill in east White Rock, and just last year, fire destroyed the former Surf dance hall.
In White Rock’s early years, the town often received assistance from the Blaine fire department in the U.S., and that international co-operation was greatly appreciated by residents.
Fire is a major calamity and this latest one has affected many people.
Frank Bucholtz writes weekly for The Leader.