Nelson’s biggest blazes

In the third part of our series on the fire hall’s centennial, we look at some of the major fires to strike this city.

ABOVE: The Strathcona Hotel burns on May 27

Last of three parts

Paul Franck clung to the window ledge as smoke and screams filled the air.

“I could feel my fingers burning as I hung onto the hot cement sill three storeys above ground,” the 28-year-old typewriter repairman said. “To me it looked like the end of the world.”

It was 1 a.m. on May 27, 1955 as the 50 guests and permanent residents of the Strathcona Hotel awoke to the horrible realization their building was on fire.

“Staircases hung at crazy angles silhouetted against the raging inferno of fire licking at tarred siding and tinder dry woodwork,” the Daily News vividly recounted. “The occasional loud crash told of another wall falling and an eerie daylight glowed at the intersection of Stanley and Victoria.”

Some guests, like Franck, were left dangling from upper-storey windows.

“I made a dash for the window and slid out until I was just hanging by my fingertips,” he told the newspaper. “I remember screaming my lungs out, shouting for help. It was three storeys to the pavement. I didn’t relish the jump.”

He tried to get back inside, but couldn’t get past the smoke and flame. At last, he heard a fireman shout: “Don’t jump, we have a ladder.”

Franck hung on and emerged from Nelson’s worst blaze with only burned hands. Others weren’t as lucky: six people died that day, among them 10-year-old Rudy Symington whose family lost their Harrop home to fire only a few months earlier.

Four others went to hospital — including a father and son who did jump — and firefighter Jim Peck, who saved several lives while nearly losing his own.

“It was what I imagined hell must be like,” he said.

Another 40 people escaped without serious injury.

The ladder that swung from window to window that terrible day is among the most evocative artifacts in an exhibit that opens Saturday at Touchstones Nelson, entitled City in Flames: A Journey Through Nelson’s Fire History. Coinciding with the fire hall’s centennial, it looks at the many fires that transformed the community.

Fire department’s birth

When Nelson’s volunteer fire department formed in early 1891, the first order of business was deciding on a name. It required several speeches and ballots, but according to The Miner, “Finally the organization was christened Deluge Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 of Nelson and the man who proposed the name was sprinkled with muddy water from a floor sprinkler, much to the amusement of the friends of the defeated names.”

In those days, there were no horses much less motorized engines and a fire department’s worth was measured by how fast its members could pull a hose reel or chemical wagon (one of the latter, beautifully restored by former deputy chief Bob Slade, forms a centrepiece to the Touchstones exhibit).

Nelson’s first significant fire on April 7, 1892 destroyed Carney and Barrett’s store, a loss of over $7,000, but for the most part the city suffered few big fires in its early years and escaped the sort of massive blazes that levelled Sandon, Fernie, Kaslo, and Rossland. (It may have been partly due to the foresight of the first city council, which in 1897 passed a bylaw banning construction of wooden buildings downtown.)

Any complacency ended in the summer of 1911, during the spree of the notorious fire bug. For several weeks, fires broke out almost nightly in lumber yards, Chinatown, the Lake Street brothels, and even a toolshed adjoining the fire hall — each started by a lit candle atop paper and kindling. Scared residents were on high alert, fearing their homes and businesses could be next. Freeda Hume Bolton recalled: “It got so people didn’t go to bed until ‘after the fire.’”

The attacks peaked on consecutive days in early September with the destruction of the brewery and idle Hall Mines smelter. The prime suspect, John Bradshaw, was arrested and tried several times before he was finally convicted of starting a single fire on the Nock ranch.

The jury asked for mercy on the grounds he committed the crime “as the result of a mania for setting fires.” Bradshaw was jailed three years. Doubts persisted whether he actually set all the fires, but it didn’t prevent six citizens from splitting a $1,500 reward for his conviction.

The fire bug panic also probably helped convince city council to put up the money for the present fire hall, built in 1912-13.

Reminded me of the Hindenburg

Ask Nelson’s fire chiefs past and present about their most memorable fires, and you get a pretty good overview of the major conflagrations of the last 30-plus years.

For Harry Sommerville, who became a career firefighter in 1967 and was chief from 1982 to 1992, the Blaylock mansion fire of July 10, 1981 sticks out. “That was out of our jurisdiction. We had to phone all six councillors to get permission to respond. It was quite a severe fire but we saved it. Otherwise there would have been nothing left.”

Randy Brieter, on staff from 1978 to 2007, including the last four years as chief, was captain on duty the night the idle Kootenay Forest Products plywood plant burned on July 28, 1987.

By the time he reached the corner of Front and Ward streets, Brieter could see flames licking up over Fairview. “I knew we had something pretty big,” he says. “To approach that as one fireman, one fire truck, there was not much you could do. It reminded me of the Hindenburg. People were finding pieces of charred plywood up around Four Mile.”

Simon Grypma, who joined the paid ranks in 1978 and has been chief since 2008, singles out the Kerr block fire of January 6, 2011 for special mention, “as it represented the saving of so many lives.” He says the fire department was responsible for many safety upgrades to the building that prevented deaths and injuries.

“This was a great historic building and very tragic to lose. However, the loss of life could have been tragic if we did not work with the owners to insure the safety of all including the firefighters.”

The other tragedy that stays with him is the April 2, 1992 trailer fire that claimed the lives of Aimee Beaulieu and her twin infants — still an unsolved crime. Five more fire-related deaths have occurred in Nelson since, bringing the total in the city’s history to over 20.

“Any fire with a loss of life has a profound impact on the fire department,” Grypma says. “These fires set the stage for an aggressive fire prevention program in the city. Our goal is never to have another fire fatality.”

City in Flames: A Journey Through Nelson’s Fire History runs at Touchstones from June 8 to September 8.

OTHER MAJOR FIRES OF THE LAST 50 YEARS

April 17, 1967: St. Paul’s Trinity United Church. The church’s organist, a Trafalgar teacher, was charged with arson. Damage over $250,000

November 17, 1969: Queens Hotel, Baker St. Destroyed. Now the site of the Mountain Hound Inn.

July 19, 1972: Overwaitea, 503 Vernon St. Damage of $125,000. Six onlookers either volunteered or were conscripted to help fight the fire.

August 2, 1974: Chinese Nationalist Society, 524 Lake Street. Claimed the life of Wah (Shorty) Der, 69.

June 13, 1975: Trafalgar School auditorium. Arson. $275,000 loss.

December 1, 1976: Johnstone block, Baker Street, where BCAA is now. Seven stores and seven apartments lost. Suffered two previous fires: one in 1938 destroyed the top floor, another in 1949 destroyed seven businesses as well.

February 28, 1979: Hume School. $300,000 to $400,000 damage. Arson. A 15-year-old was arrested. Although gutted, the rebuilt school incorporated the original brick facade.

September 28, 1982: Heritage Lanes bowling alley and Big Daddy’s Tonite night club, 500 block Vernon Street. $750,000 damage. Arson suspected.

1984: Kootenay Forest Products sawmill

December 22, 1993: Kootenay Forest Products planer mill

1994: City of Nelson power plant

January 1, 1998: Granite Pointe golf clubhouse. Destroyed.

March 27, 1999: Morning Mountain ski lodge, Blewett. Destroyed.

July 28, 2001: House at 915 Carbonate Street. Claims the lives of Vern Hodgkinson, Sarah Hellman, 35, and Andy Johnson, 35.

October 8, 2001: House at 215 Stibbs St. Claims the life of Lynne Elizabeth Roberts, 54.

May 4, 2003: Nelson museum. The MV Amabilis destroyed and other artifacts smoke damaged. Arson.

July 3, 2003: Rod and Gun Club destroyed. Arson.

January 18, 2006: Green block, Ward Street. $35,000 damage.

November 10, 2007: Savoy Hotel, Falls Street. Mazatlan restaurant, Back Country Hostel, and Club 198 destroyed. The bar in the same building burned in 1973.

December 18, 2008: Trailer fire, 700 block Lakeview Crescent, claims life of Maurice John Eggie, 59.

December 31, 2009: Kootenay Sleds and Wheels. Former A&W.

July 29, 2010: Redfish Grill, Baker Street. Former LD Cafe.