Lake Cowichan’s devastating fire of 1964

“The day after the fire, a painful scene of ruin lay smoldering,” wrote Trevor Green who had returned early the next morning.

Continued from last week.

“The day after the fire, a painful scene of ruin lay smoldering,” wrote Trevor Green who had returned early the next morning.

Teacher Ernie Clode was leading small groups of students including Green’s daughter, to their lockers and classrooms.  Once there they retrieved their coats and books, some slightly damaged by water and smoke. Although smoke and water damage also occurred at the far wing of the school, it was spared because the fire had originated in the gym area.

During his morning trip to the scene, Green found (and recorded in his journal) that  “Hobson had kindly engaged my services as night watchman to start at 8 p.m. tonight.”

Later that evening Green met young Earl LaForge, also a newly hired night watchmen, at the school maintenance shop where district employee Mr. Budd briefed them as to their duties. They consisted of patrolling ruins at intervals until dawn, employing [fire] hoses “as deemed necessary,” and the refueling of the kerosene blower in the underground vault where the transformers were located”.

During early evening of the first shift, an electrician who was on the scene commented to Green and others that he was convinced that the cause [of the fire] stemmed from something other than electrical frailties.

The night went by quickly with the two watchmen completing their nightly rounds, including squelching stubborn flames that had surfaced here and there amid the pit of ruins. The industrial arts and other buildings were located some distance from the fire; therefore, watchmen and other employees on the scene were able to take their breaks in the warm building, which also served as a temporary headquarters. Each day at dawn, the day crew relieved the night watchmen.

During the days and nights following the fire, rain and slushy snow continued to fall. The watchmen spent time mopping floors including those of the sewing room and Room 7 where drenched and broken ceiling tiles had fallen.

A week later, activity at the scene during daylight turned to “an indescribable confusion, but all of this, perhaps a sort of order,” wrote Green.

There were electricians, carpenters and plumbers “swarming about,” while cleaning squads worked here and there.

Meanwhile, at the old community hall, piles of debris and perfectly good parts and equipment were destined for the garbage dump because there was no room left for storage. For Green, it was “awful to see perfectly good windows, desks, benches, radiators, typing tables and chairs, windows, good lumber, boards, dressers, glass and stoves crashing down the ravine at the garbage dump.”

During the organized chaos, classrooms were set up in various locations, including the IWA Hall (then located across South Shore Road from the high school), which was converted into three classrooms, as was the nearby Anglican Church. An additional four classrooms were set up at the United Church while classes were also held in the school industrial arts building and in the far end of the school. A large load of cut timber, was delivered to the high school field to rest three mobile classrooms on (now called portables). Meanwhile, work continued amid the debris with reconstruction of the roof, several classrooms, and the gym and home economics rooms. According to local resident Diana Gunderson, a Grade 10 student at the school at the time, “It was an incredibly short time before we were back in our classrooms.”

Green described his last shift spent in a sodden damp and hopeless mess, while removing cinders, ashes, charred lumber, burnt beams, soaked ceilings tiles and plaster walls from classrooms. On Feb 10, he happily returned to his regular place of employment, at the Mesachie Lake Forestry Station.