A historic building in downtown New Westminster was wiped out – and others were at risk – after fire ripped through the historic E.L. Lewis Block early Thursday morning.
New Westminster Fire Chief Tim Armstrong said crews arrived at the building at 634 Columbia St. about 3:45 a.m. and found it completely engulfed in flames.
“The fire was pretty intense,” said Coun. Jaimie McEvoy. “It melted street lights a block away.”
Terry Brine, who co-owns the E.L. Lewis Block with Bill Lewis, received a call alerting him to the fire.
"I'll go put it out,” he said of his first reaction. “I didn’t expect this.”
Nothing prepared Brine for the devastation he saw when he arrived at the scene Thursday morning.
"It was a pretty full building,” he told The Record. “It's gone now.”
After destroying the E.L. Lewis block, also known as the Crescent Block, fire broke through the firewall and spread to the Hambley Block at 624 Columbia St.
“I could look into it – it was only sky,” Blair Fryer, the city’s communications manager, said of the damage to the Hambley Block.
Firefighters continued to work to save the Cunningham Block at 612 Columbia St.
“The whole block is heritage buildings,” said Kathleen Stevens, a planning assistant with the city. “The Copp’s building was built in 1904. The two buildings next to that were built in 1899.”
Much of New Westminster’s downtown was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1898. The buildings in the block were rebuilt after that time.
McEvoy said the E.L. Lewis Block was among the post Great Fire buildings designed to be "nice and solid," and survive a fire.
“It's a big loss," he said. "It’s a prominent heritage corner. It's in the middle of the historic district."
McEvoy said the fire has the potential to be the third worst fire in the downtown’s history, with only the Great Fire of 1898 and a fire in the 1800s that destroyed an entire city block being worse.
"It is a disaster," he said.
The cause of the fire isn't known, but Armstrong said roof work was being done on the building.
"There was a number of explosions," he said. "That was the propane tanks left on the roof."
A man who was making a "bottle run" said he heard two explosions about 3:45 a.m. while walking on Columbia Street. He said a police officer pushed him out of the way and told him to go somewhere safe.
Smoke was billowing throughout the downtown and could be seen from miles away.
New Westminster Police Department received a phone call from the fire department at 3:40 a.m. on Oct. 10 advising police of a structure fire at 634 Columbia St. About 35 firefighters battled the blaze, including reinforcements from the Burnaby and Delta fire departments.
The E.L. Lewis Block has about 11 tenants including a bridal shop, a restaurant, a law office, a shoe repair shop, a barber shop, three offices and two antique stores.
"I feel so badly for my tenants,” Brine said. “They still have to make a living and families to support."
Bystanders gathered in the downtown, many expressing disbelief at the destruction and loss of heritage.
“There is no human death thankfully, but there is a toll,” McEvoy said. “This is people’s livings.”
The New Westminster Police Department opened up a conference room in the police station to businesses impacted by the fire. Emergency Social Services staff was onsite to assist those impacted by the fire.
“The mood is one of shock or resignation,” McEvoy said.
No injuries were reported. Firefighters rescued a cat from one of the buildings, after learning a cat was inside 650 Columbia St.
“Two firefighters suited up and went in to get the cat,” McEvoy said. “Lincoln the cat was rescued.”
Lincoln appeared to be in good spirits after being rescued by firefighters. Volunteers with the emergency pet services program provided Lincoln with a new cat carrier and cat food.
“His owner was beaming,” McEvoy said. “He was actually fairly calm – after a good period of meowing.”