Trial by Fire

I went down to the site of the fire yesterday.

Part of me didn’t want to, I knew it would be a mess, and there are serious people there trying to get work done in whose way I don’t want to get, and although we are (thankfully) lucky that no-one was seriously hurt or killed by the fire, the site is a type of grave- the smoldering remains of people’s businesses, aspirations, dreams. I didn’t want to be a gawker. Approaching the site in the early evening, I was angry at the news helicopters circling – how dare they intrude on our town seeking lurid images for the 11:00. I was bothered by the people who brought their kids to the Parkade to ogle the damage and get pictures of their kids in front of it. But there I was, one of the gawkers, one of the oglers. I even took a picture.

I talked to quite a few people on Thursday and Friday. I heard some pretty sad stories about loss. There are people who lost almost everything in this fire. There are businesses that are not coming back. There are things insurance can replace, there are things it cannot. I don’t want to tell those stories here, because they are not my stories, and I fear talking for others at a time of grief.

I’m not the kind of person who thinks we have fates or destinies. To me, things like this don’t happen “for a reason”, they don’t happen to teach us lessons, or to tell us about the universe. They just happen. That doesn’t stop us from trying to find “the reason” in them – we are pattern-seeking animals. They can, if we let them, tell us about ourselves and our community.

For me, it was strange how emotional this fire is. I didn’t lose anything personally, I don’t even live close enough to have heard the sirens. Several years ago when I lived on Royal and 10th, the paint store right across the street burned to the ground in a spectacular display. Right next door, but to me it wasn’t much more than a curiosity. Why is this fire different? Of the shops that were lost, the only one I frequented was La Saigonnaise (Alas! We were there Sunday – so glad I got to sample the Chef’s Special instead of my “usual”), but there is something about those heritage buildings on Columbia Street, something in their 110-year-old bones, that make their loss different. The Copp’s building (Sorry, Mr. Lewis, that’s what I thought of it as) was one of those locations I remember going into and remarking at the space, which filled me with ideas. I could see a funky bar/coffee shop, a book/media store, a decent men’s clothing place that isn’t Moores. There was so much potential there to be realized. Maybe that’s where the difference was: this building was not just part of our landscape, it was part of our imagination about what New Westminster will be if we keep pushing ideas.

This picture is not mine. It was posted on Twitter by @Mondor13, beautifully adapted from pictures from @stephmer and Daniel Fontaine, and widely distributed.

That, however, is the loss part. Fortunately, the loss is only half the story. The rest of the story is about a community coming together in time of crisis. It started with our neighbouring communities, Burnaby and Delta, providing mutual aid to relieve and back-up our New Westminster Fire crews. With ashes and cinders dropping all over downtown, and 100-year old buildings made of brick but filled with kiln-dried wood and labyrinths of ducts and holes and wires and shafts- the effort required to stop the flames must have been massive. The amount of water required was monumental, evidenced by the flooded-out excavation at the nearby Trapp+Holbrook development, as the local storm sewers were quickly overwhelmed.

The rest of the story continued as the first social media and old-school phone call offers of help. At first, so many offers to help that they outdistanced the requests for help from the impacted businesses. The City stepped in with business continuity planning. The Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown BIA immediately started sending out messages, and developed lists of all the businesses and individuals in town who want to provide temporary space, technical help, services, cupcakes, whatever. People around town were not gawking, they were asking how and who they can help.

Follow that last link to the Chamber site and see the list of people and businesses stepping up in the way they can – if that doesn’t put a lump in your throat, you might want to have your cynicism gland checked out.

A nice piece in one of the Local Postmedia Media Newspapers of Note™ by New West Resident Jeff Lee gets it only half right. This fire was a strike at the soul of the City, but the soul did not lose a piece, it was just tempered a bit. This City will be strengthened by the community connections that are being forged as we get past this. There is talk of a benefit event of some sort – too early to speculate on how that will form – but watch the Columbia Theatre space. People will be sharing as they try to move their businesses forward. People will say thank you, and others will say you are welcome. This will be the social glue that fills the gaps created by this fire, long before a new building fills the physical gap in our downtown.

The day after the fire, this message went up on what is, to some, an unexpected medium:

Photo from Theresa McManus’ Twitterfeed

I love this City.

Besides the helicopters, there was something else circling the site yesterday evening: a small flock of pigeons. They were circling over the now-extinguished ruins, stopping occasionally to sit on an adjacent rooftop and look at the damage. I had to assume they weren’t there to gawk, but were wondering where to hunker down for the night, as their nests were somewhere down there in the rubble. I wonder how long until they start rebuilding? How do they even start?

3 comments on “Trial by Fire

  1. It didn’t occur to me to take my kids down for photos, but I think I will now. I concede that it may be disrespectful, but years from now they will have a personal reminder of a time that this city came together and change was forced on us. Whatever rises from those ashes will be amazing, but I want my kids to remember that rebirth came from loss. What a great way to open up discussion about the importance of heritage, community and picking oneself up after being knocked down.

  2. Patrick, I thought your avocation would be bikes, but definitely you are a writer at heart. A wonderfully put-together piece that ought to be published in MacLeans(?) The Walrus(?) whatever. Great piece. Mom

  3. Have to agree with your Mom. Well, well written. Cannot imagine a better way to describe this sad situation. Being a technical person, I am also interested in results of investigation and what lessons we will learn to prevent from happening again. Vladimir

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