Massive fire destroys stretch of New Westminster pier; residents warned of 'highly toxic' smoke
NEW WESTMINSTER, B.C. -- A massive fire that broke out Sunday night has destroyed much of a park along New Westminster's waterfront.
New Westminster Fire and Rescue Services was called to the Westminster Pier Park shortly after 8 p.m. after reports of a brush fire.
“When the crews arrived we had fire underneath the wharf by the New Westminster 'W',” said Chief Tim Armstrong.
The blaze spread quickly, forcing crews to upgrade it to a four-alarm fire.
“Being that it’s an old creosote dock the fire spread rapidly to the west,” he explained.
Armstrong believes five to six acres have been destroyed between the SkyTrain bridge and the park’s concession stand.
He says accessing the fire was difficult.
"The big challenge is the toxic smoke that is created by the creosote pilings. We've got minimal access to it. Can't put crews on top of the structure and the fire’s actually burning underneath,” Armstrong told CTV News.
Vancouver Fire and Rescue’s fire boat was called in to assist, fighting the flames from the waterside.
Crews from Coquitlam and Delta were also brought in to help.
The fire chief says that while the fire is contained, it's likely to continue burning for days.
“We’re going to have to bring in barges and heavy equipment to gain access,” Armstrong told CTV News.
No one was hurt and none of the surrounding businesses are at risk.
Officials are asking people to stay away from the downtown area.
“Close your windows. We already had a smoke advisory before this happened with the wildfires and smoke coming from Washington state. This smoke is highly toxic, so you don’t want to be breathing it in,” said Armstrong.
He says they’re doing everything they can to save the city’s crown jewel.
While the cause of the fire is still under investigation, the New Westminster Police Department says its major crimes unit has been called in to help determine the cause.
Anyone with information is asked to contact investigators at 604-525-5411.
'Heartbreaking to see,' mayor says
New Westminster’s mayor says the blaze has led to a huge loss for the community.
"Pier Park has become an important heart of the city," Mayor Jonathan Cote told reporters Monday, after he toured the site of the fire.
"It is really heartbreaking to see the fire happen … thankfully it looks like the new part of the park is going to be saved, but unfortunately the old pier structure is not going to survive the fire."
Cote says that even if the iconic W isn't destroyed, it will need to be taken down.
"Unfortunately, the pier has been severely damaged and the W will need to come down. Hopefully we'll be able to save the W and relocate it, but for now our focus is on putting out the fire," Cote said.
While there's no timeline, Cote says that part of the pier will eventually be rebuilt.
"Downtown New Westminster is the oldest part of British Columbia. We've seen our challenges and crises over the years, but we are a resilient community," he said.
"We will continue to fight on and we will rebuild."
The fire took a toll on local businesses, especially those along New Westminster’s Columbia street, with many choosing to close for the day.
A sign outside Royal City Paws Pet Centre stated the veterinarian clinic was closed for the day "due to the very hazardous air."
All appointments at Anim Hair and Beauty Studio were canceled as staff assess the situation.
“It’s a big loss of the whole community,” said owner Daniel Ampong. “Because a lot of people come through here.”
The normally bustling Big Star Sandwich was practically empty and closed early.
“Also people shouldn’t be breathing these fumes,” said Big Star Sandwich Director of Operations Arjan Gill. “We don’t want our employees and everyone else to be coming down here.”
Traffic, transit rerouted
A section of Front Street remained closed Monday morning as crews continued to put out hot spots.
Service on part of the Expo Line of SkyTrain was suspended Sunday night due to the smoke, but returned to full operation in time for the morning commute.
Three nearby schools suspended classes due to the toxic smoke: Qayqayt Elementary, Queen Elizabeth Elementary and Queensborough Middle School.
In addition, the B.C. Supreme Court in downtown New Westminster closed for the day because of poor air quality in the area. All court proceedings for the day adjourned and anyone with an appearance scheduled for Monday was asked to contact the scheduling office.
With files from CTV News Vancouver's St. John Alexander