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‘All hell broke loose’: 60 years ago, a 5-alarm fire destroyed four blocks in False Creek

Click to play video 'Sawmill sparks Vancouver’s only five-alarm fire in 1960, destroying four blocks near False Creek' Sawmill sparks Vancouver’s only five-alarm fire in 1960, destroying four blocks near False Creek
WATCH: Amateur film footage from the City of Vancouver's archive shows the massive fire that started at the BC Forest Products sawmill and quickly grew into the first and only five-alarm fire in the city's history.

On the afternoon of July 3, 1960, Capt. John Telosky of the J.H. Carlisle fireboat noticed smoke billowing out of the B.C. Forest Products sawmill near Oak Street and West 6th Avenue.

He called the fire in, as did the watchman who was on duty at the mill, and the boat moved towards the south side of False Creek.

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The fire, which was sparked in a planer mill, was stoked by strong winds in an industrial area filled with lumber.

“Then all hell broke loose and away it went,” local historian Alex Matches recalls.

“It was just an awful fire.”

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A fire destroyed the B.C. Forest Products sawmill on July 3, 1960.
A fire destroyed the B.C. Forest Products sawmill on July 3, 1960. Norm Moodie

The B.C. Forest Products fire quickly grew into the first five-alarm fire in the city’s history, destroying an estimated four-block area east of Oak Street and changing the landscape of False Creek.

The fire moved so quickly that hose lines that had been laid down were overtaken by flames, forcing some firefighters to retreat to safety.

Fire Chief Hugh Bird believed he had to take some chances if he wanted to stop flames from spreading further, concentrating almost all of the fire department’s resources to False Creek, leaving skeleton crews to cover the rest of the city.

A fire destroyed the B.C. Forest Products sawmill on July 3, 1960.
A fire destroyed the B.C. Forest Products sawmill on July 3, 1960. Norm Moodie

“I very definitely had to gamble to save False Creek,” Bird told the Canadian Press at the time.

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“We had more apparatus there than we have ever had at any fire. We put more hose line down than ever before.”

In his book, Vancouver’s Bravest: 120 Years of Firefighting History, Matches tells the story of how Deputy Chief Elmer Sly was met with resistance when trying to get a second fireboat moved from the harbour to False Creek.

“If we don’t stop this damn fire by the time it gets to Cambie Street, it’s gonna burn clear to Nova Scotia!” Sly said.

Alex Matches (in the red shirt) is among the crowd watching a fire at B.C. Forest Products on June 3, 1960.
Alex Matches (in the red shirt) is among the crowd watching a fire at B.C. Forest Products on June 3, 1960. Norm Moodie

Matches remembers the day vividly. He was driving with his fiancee, who he had just proposed to the day before, on a Sunday at the end of a Canada Day long weekend when he spotted the flames. They joined a huge crowd of onlookers who watched the sawmill and surrounding industrial buildings burn to the ground.

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“It was a spectacular fire as fires went,” said Matches, who became a firefighter in 1962.

“You could see it from all over the place…There were no clouds in the sky, it was absolutely a beautiful sunny day, and here is all this black smoke, a big column of black smoke.”

A fire destroyed the B.C. Forest Products sawmill on July 3, 1960.
A fire destroyed the B.C. Forest Products sawmill on July 3, 1960. Norm Moodie

There were reports the fire could be seen from as far as Vancouver Island.

All told, 350 firefighters battled the blaze. Twelve were injured and three were hospitalized, according to Matches.

The fire consumed more than 300,000 metres of lumber.

It was the biggest fire since the Great Vancouver Fire of 1886, which saw volunteer fire crews battle a blaze that levelled much of the city.

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The president of B.C. Forest Products estimated the damage at $3 million, or about $26 million in today’s dollars. Bird did not lay blame on the company at the time, saying it had an excellent fire safety record.

“It’s a shame that it had to happen on a Sunday,” a company official told the Canadian Press. “Had it happened on a working day I’m sure our own crew could have handled it.”

The mill was never rebuilt. After the fire, it was turned into a residential area, which still stands today.

— With files from The Canadian Press

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