Our Past: Downtown Victoria forged in flames

Dave Obee, Times Colonist Published: Sunday, July 27, 2008

The need to fight fires has been around since the city was just a fort, so it should come as no surprise that Victoria's fire department is one of the organizations - including the city police, Chinatown and the Times Colonist itself - that is celebrating its 150th birthday this year.

Major events are planned for next weekend. In the meantime, it would make sense to consider some of the challenges faced over the years by the men and women of the fire department.

The history of the Victoria fire department has been expertly told by Dave Parker in his book, First Water, Tigers!

Our firefighters have faced many substantial challenges over the past century and a half. Here are some of the notable fires within Victoria's city limits:

Oct. 19, 1859: The two-storey building owned by Thomas Pattrick and Co. at Government and Johnson was destroyed. At the time, it was one of the largest buildings in Victoria.

Aug. 5, 1875: Fire destroyed the plant at the Spring Ridge Water Works.

Aug. 7, 1892: The street railway's power house, at the south end of the Rock Bay Bridge at Store Street, was destroyed by fire.

May 18, 1899: Cary Castle, the home of the lieutenant-governor, was destroyed by fire. There had been seven previous fires in the residence, all near the chimney.

July 23, 1907: The worst fire in Victoria's history raced through several blocks, destroying just about everything in its path. It began in a blacksmith shop at Herald and Store streets, but the wind carried the flames to Government, then Douglas, then Blanshard, then Quadra. Ninety structures in nine city blocks were wiped out and about 250 people were left homeless. No lives were lost. The fire was stopped when firefighters tore down some cottages to prevent the blaze from spreading. {interesting tactic!}

Oct. 26, 1910: A fire that started in Spencer's department store spread to the Five Sisters Block and other structures. Many valuable old architectural records and photographs were destroyed. The fire wiped out 40 businesses in the area bounded by Government, Fort, Broad and Trounce streets.

Sept. 1, 1918: A grass fire on Tolmie Avenue resulted in the death of Lt. Joe Lund when a chemical fire extinguisher exploded.

Aug. 15, 1926: The gasometer at the corner of Government and Pembroke blew up. About 150,000 cubic feet of gas was destroyed, but there were no injuries.

Jan. 18, 1937: A fire in the upper floors of the post office building, on the northern edge of the Inner Harbour, caused about $50,000 in damage. Charred timbers from the roof crashed all the way through to the ground floor of the four-storey building.

March 27, 1957: The last of the original "birdcages," the first home of the legislative assembly, was destroyed. Initially it was believed the building could be restored, but that proved to be an impossible dream.

April 14, 1957: Government House, the official residence of the lieutenant-governor, was destroyed in a $1-million blaze. The building, designed by Francis Rattenbury, had been built on the site of Cary Castle, destroyed by fire in 1899.

Dec. 8, 1960: Church of St. John the Divine, at Quadra and Mason, was almost totally destroyed. Damage was estimated at $500,000 to $750,000. First United Church, next door to the Anglican one, was also damaged. The fire was deliberately set. The church was rebuilt.

Oct. 25, 1964: The grandstand at Royal Athletic

Park went up in flames. The fire started in the bleachers to the west of the wooden grandstand, and underground passages acted like a wind tunnel, moving the fire swiftly along. The grandstand was rebuilt, with a grand opening in 1967.

June 21, 1975: Three people were killed when fire raged through the Royal Olympic Hotel at 642 Johnson. The fire started in a second-floor room and quickly spread to the top floors of the seven-storey building. Eleven people were injured.

Aug. 8, 1977: A fire that could be seen across Juan de Fuca Strait and from vantage points throughout Greater Victoria destroyed the Can-adian National Railway complex at Ogden Point. Crews from Saanich, Oak Bay and Dockyard were called in to help. The fire attracted crowds in the thousands and caused massive traffic congestion.

Oct. 29, 1977: A cigarette dropped into a fireworks display was blamed for a $250,000 fire at Quonley's Market at 1628 Government St. A man in an apartment above the store was killed. The exploding firecrackers and skyrockets resulted in what one witness described as "a war scene."

Feb. 18, 1981: The Imperial Kitchen Centre on Douglas was destroyed. The building was originally the Douglas Roller Gardens, then used as a furniture warehouse, then lumber yard and building supply centre. At the time of the fire, Canadian Tire had placed an option on the property, looking to build a new retail store there.

March 11, 1981: A house at 574 Bay St. burned, killing three children in what was considered to be the worst residential fire in the city's history. A fourth person died later in hospital. The fire was caused by children playing with matches.

July 19, 1985: Revelstoke Home Centre on Gorge Road burned in a $2-million blaze. A $100,000 fire had hit the same property in 1961, when it was the Stewart and Hudson lumber yard.

Sept. 27, 1987: Standard Furniture's landmark store in the 700 block of Yates Street was destroyed in a multimillion-dollar blaze. What was left of the 1911 heritage building was demolished soon after the fire. The fire was blamed on arson.

May 25, 2000: Revelstoke Home Centre at 280 Bay St. in Victoria West was destroyed by fire. The damage was estimated at $3 million.