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