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Westminster Pier Park fire: an emotional hit in a turbulent year

2020 Event of the Year
The timber portion of Westminster Pier Park was destroyed by fire in September. The surviving section of the popular destination is expected to reopen to the public in February 2021. Rick Fabbro/Photo

It may not have devastated the downtown like the Great Fire of September 1898, but the Westminster Pier Park fire left a huge void on New Westminster’s waterfront.

The COVID-19 pandemic is hands-down the Newsmaker of the Year – here and around the world – but the Westminster Pier Park is the Record’s Event of the Year for 2020.

On the evening of Sept. 13, a fire broke out on the eastern side of Pier Park, ultimately igniting many of the creosote-covered wooden pilings upon which part of the part was built and quickly spreading. Accessing the site – and the pilings under the deck – took time, and the fire wasn’t finally extinguished until Sept. 24, after the deck had been dismantled and hot spots were put out.

“Chief Armstrong would like to thank the crews that have been working tirelessly since the evening of Sept. 13 fighting this difficult fire,” said a Sept. 24 statement from the city. “A special thanks to the community, as well as outside agencies and other city departments that came together to support this operation. Work at the site will now transition to a remediation and cleanup phase.”

As flames and smoke engulfed the waterfront on the night the fire began, some feared the entire park would be wiped out. The fire destroyed the entire 1957 timber wharf, which included volleyball courts, hammocks, an urban beach and the Wow Westminster public art piece.

As 2020 came to an end, that space was empty, as the decks and pilings had been removed from the river surface and shoreline during the fire response and site cleanup.

Work is also underway to remove sunken debris and to mitigate any adverse environmental impacts on the Fraser River. In-water work to be done includes water and sediment sampling, which is expected to start Jan. 4 and wrap up by early February.

The surviving section of Westminster Pier Park remains off-limits to community members; It’s expected this portion of the popular waterfront park will reopen Feb. 1 – after a secondary emergency services access point from Front Street is in place and a final cleanup of the site is complete.

The fallout from the fire will continue into 2021, as the city needs to sort out insurance issues and embark on plans for rebuilding.

An emotional hit

Mayor Jonathan Cote said the Westminster Pier Park was “another emotional hit” in an already difficult year for local residents.

“Like everything else this year, we just tried to work to try and regroup, build from it and start working on how do we rebuild from here,” he said in a year-end interview with The Record. “The cleanup has gone very well on the site. Now we are looking forward to the opportunity in 2021 to really start to engage in the conversation about how do we rebuild and how do we really take Pier Park to the next level. I think there is going to be some really good opportunities with the community to participate in that dialogue.”

The City of New Westminster purchased the waterfront site for $8 million in 2009 and built the $25.1-million park, with the city, and the provincial and federal governments each contributing funds to the project. The new linear riverfront park opened in 2012, but temporary uses, which were deemed to be safe uses for the original infrastructure, were built on the timber wharf section of the site in 2014.

“Certainly it was not in our short-term plans to be rebuilding that portion of Westminster Pier Park,” Cote said. “But this was an old pier structure that we knew at some point in our future would have to be rebuilt.”

Information gathered during the original planning of Westminster Pier Park, as well as input about the temporary uses of the park, will help the city as it moves forward with plans for part of the park that was destroyed by the fire, Cote said.

“It’s a good starting point, and I think it shows the city had always contemplated that we would be doing at this point,” he said. “Yes, the fire is not ideal. It has been really unfortunate but in the end it might even speed up the process of really getting the complete Pier Park put in place.”