History of the White Rock Firefighters
By: Alicia Liang
In modern times, when we think back to the horrendous destruction that various fires caused in White Rock, we often fail to recognize the positive consequences of these fires. These blazes that raged through wooden stores and homes brought together a pioneer community, tested its pride and resilience and spun tales to be shared with generations to come. This was the essence from which a community organization emerged. This is the story of the White Rock Fire Fighters.
Throughout the early 1900s, many disastrous fires ravaged through White Rock. The community relied on Blaine, Cloverdale and New Westminster for fire protection until 1934 and often held fundraisers to pay Blaine for its services. In September 1910, hot weather combined with strong winds resulted in an immense fire that burned on for almost 2 months. A mass of flames devoured the whole countryside from just east of the White Rock to Blackie Spit. The original White Rock School was threatened by a fire in 1918 and in January 1927, a fire destroyed many buildings along Sea Front Road including the Auditorium, Post Office and Shepherd Brother's Meat Market. The 1928 fire at the Great Northern Railway Station Depot was put out using a bucket brigade that transferred water from Semiahmoo Bay. Fires in 1930 and 1931 destroyed the Central Hotel and the Blue Moon Dance Pavilion. These helpless situations, as well as the successful extinguishing of the railway fire, triggered an urgency to establish White Rock’s own volunteer fire brigade.
Recruiting for the White Rock Volunteer Fire Brigade began in 1933, with the three-person committee of W.J. McIlwain, the first deputy chief and driver, Councillor Logan Davis and W.J. Moffat. March of 1934 was their first call to action as they used a bucket brigade to put out a bush fire on Buena Vista Avenue. Later that year, New Westminster Fire Chief W.J. Watson was appointed fire marshal. After various fundraising events, a reorganization meeting finally took place in 1936 and McIlwain was elected the first Fire Chief. His gas station on Marine Drive served as the fire hall until he moved to the interior. After his departure, White Rock’s fire brigade faltered due to inadequate equipment. In 1940, Jack Kelman became fire chief and housed the fire truck at his Shell service station. Kelman’s Garage served as the fire hall. Eventually, the White Rock Firefighters purchased an adjacent property to build a small, independent facility with overhead living quarters, a 35 foot hose tower and a siren. Within the decade, this hall was replaced by the more advanced White Rock/Sunnyside Fire Hall at Johnston and North Bluff Roads. The original hall was sold in 1953 to extend the new hall by two bays. On January 1st, 1959, the White Rock/Sunnyside Fire Hall was turned over to the newly incorporated City of White Rock.
Recently, a focal point at the White Rock museum was the White Rock Firefighters’ first fire truck, a 1925 Studebaker that joined the force in the early 1930’s after large fire on Marine Drive. Under McIlwain’s supervision, citizens built the truck using a Studebaker sedan frame and parts donated from the Vancouver and New Westminster Fire Departments. The truck was decommissioned in the late 40s and went to Murchie’s tea company in Vancouver. It was restored for the 1980 sea festival parade, after which it was given away again due to lack of community interest. Eventually, its Abbotsford owner donated the truck to the Shriners of BC and Yukon, who in turned donated the truck back to the White Rock Firefighters in 2011. It was restored and put on display at the White Rock Museum from Fall 2011 to Spring 2012.
The historic era of devastating fires in White Rock is now a mere ghost of the past, but its direct and indirect impact is everlasting. In particular, the White Rock Firefighters, who have been so inextricably linked with the evolution of our community from its pioneer days, continue to be our useful, involved and charitable neighbours. These firefighters truly define what it means to live in our city by the sea.
Sources: www.surreyfirefighters.com/site/history-new/ www.peacearchnews.com/community/138348454.html?mobile=true www.whiterocksun.com/index.php?mode=meet_the_neighbours www.surreyhistory.ca/fireservice.html