Larry Evans: Fort St. John’s devastating fire of April 19, 1948

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Over the years, Fort St. John has had some devastating fires. Some that come to mind are the Frontier Inn, Super Valu, Hunter’s Mall, and who can forget the arena fire? Even recently we have had major fires, but I think one of the most devastating occurred on Monday, April 19, 1948, when three-quarters of main street, between where the cultural centre is today and the Condill Hotel site, went up in flames. 

Larry McLeod, who was still an active volunteer firefighter when I joined the fire department in January 1972, was at the fire and told me that, in those days, that was half the town. McLeod had a good sense of humour. While I don’t think it was half the town, it certainly was a major portion of the entertainment district as you will read in the following story. McLeod said this was his first fire where he had helped and it hooked him on firefighting so much that they put him in charge of the fire hall (see photo). I told you he had a sense of humour! 

A name mentioned in the story is Paddy Carroll. The cabin that was brought to the North Peace Museum and restored as a heritage building (also known as Peck’s cabin) was built by this gentleman. Funny how things go around!

$75,000 Fire Destroys Entire Amusement Section of St. John

None was hurt as volunteers and Air Force battled the early morning blaze. The entire town turned out to witness the most serious fire of the North Peace. The fire which broke out about 3 a.m. on Monday, April 19th in the premises owned by Paddy Carroll on the main street of the Village of Fort St. John, destroyed the Carroll Bowling Alley, the adjoining Husky Cafe’, the Elks Hall next door, the Carlsonia Theatre, the Popcorn Stand, Alaska Stages office, the Hamburger Stand, Rene’s Taxi office. In all, damage was estimated at about $75,000.

The property formed the centre buildings in the block on the east of which was situated the Provincial Police barracks and T. Hargreaves’ Real Estate office, and on the west by the Condill Hotel and Dave’s Garage. It was boom construction throughout, and all buildings were covered by insurance. When it became obvious that the Carroll Bowling Alley and Husky Cafe’ could not be saved, furniture and equipment was carried to safety from the Elks’ club rooms and the hall. Mr. Ralph Pomeroy, one of the partners in the Carlsonia Theatre, supervised the removal of two new projection machines and other moveable equipment from the projection room. This did not include 246 new plush sets, nor the silver screen, the lighting fixtures, or the fixed foundations in the projection room from which the machines were operated. The furniture and equipment was likewise removed from the popcorn stand, owned by Howard Cawsey, the Miller and Darnell stage office, the Lumsden and Brodoway hamburger stand, and Rene Dhenin’s Taxi office. Fire crews and citizens worked furiously to save the Condill Hotel and were successful when at 4:30 a.m. the brisk northeast wind calmed. Had the fire occurred closer to midnight, a great deal of the town might have been lost owing to the high east west wind which had almost reached gale proportions before one o’clock in the morning. 

Frost had hardened the mud, and the moon was shining brightly at three o’clock when Louis Thomas, a carpenter presently engaged on the bridge job, stepped out of the Titus Rooms. He walked west on main street and arrived at a point opposite the bowling alley about the time Jim Lawrence, driver for Fred’s Taxi, drove up to the Pomeroy Hotel with a couple of passengers. Together they saw the smoke, and turned in the alarm.

Response was instantaneous, and the sirens had hardly stopped wailing when citizens ran from every direction to the police station corner (present day cultural centre site). The local fire truck was under way immediately, and the R.C.A.F. fire department was summoned from the airport four miles away. Women in housecoats, slacks, fur coats, nighties flapping in the wind, pyjamas trailing in the mud were soon out to see the extent of the fire. Guests at the Condill were roused and ordered out of their rooms. Before long, many occupants of private homes behind the burning block were on their roof tops, dousing sparks with wet blankets and buckets of water. Many were packing their belongings, and a few actually had possessions on the front porch, or ready to be moved into the street.

Firefighting was difficult owing to water having to be carried five miles from Charlie Lake to the town. The R.C.A.F. truck was hampered in that it carried only 80 gallons of water, equipped as it was to fight fire on the station which had running water. Some 26,000 gallons of water in the Condill cistern could not be tapped for lack of sufficient suction equipment. It was the first likely deterrent to the rapidly spreading blaze. The Condill was detached from the burning block and was covered in concrete and stucco so it had a reasonable chance of survival if the wind calmed. 

According to Fire Chief Ernie Carriere, about 10,000 gallons of water was used in fighting the blaze. Buckets of water were kept splashed over firefighters whose clothes were in constant danger and in some cases actually did catch fire. 

Hargreaves’ office windows were smashed and the side of his building scorched. Living quarters and office was emptied of furniture and equipment, but this was later moved back in. On the other end of the block, the Condill Cafe lost windows by heat, water, and dirt. Damage was sufficient to close the dining room for a day. Only serious damage was done to the meat house whose refrigeration unit suffered by the intense heat.

Joe Dill, of Dawson Creek, one of the owners of the Condill, expressed his gratitude to the firefighters and all who helped in saving the hotel. Recently returned from Vancouver, he was to have placed another $15,000 insurance on the building the next day. Like-wise, Ralph Pomeroy expressed the thanks of he and his partner to those who helped with the salvaging of equipment. The exalted ruler of the B.P.O. Elks, R.J.Campbell, commended loyal brothers who carried out furniture and fought the fire.

Residents in the north of town did not hear the siren, owing to the strength of the wind which carried sound and smoke the other way, but the blaze could be seen for miles. The fire burned only for three hours, though the ruins smouldered for a couple of days.

Larry Evans is a former fire chief, city councillor, and lifelong historian living in Fort St. John.

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