Fire Fire Fire


Authored by Dawn Copeman

Early history of Cumberland

It starts with wood. And coal.

The forest extends beyond history, beyond memory. Deer and other game paths leave a light trace on the landscape. For centuries, the occasional K’omoks hunters are the only humans to wander the trails around Cumberland, noticing the deposits of shiny black rock peeking from the understory only in passing.

Coal brings settlers to the area in 1888. First are the miners in their makeshift tents and shacks, cutting down trees to make crude log shelters, followed by Chinese work crews bushwhacking from Royston, hauling saws and other large metal pieces for a mill sited behind where the Cumberland Recreation Centre stands today.

The trees are so large you can use the thick outer bark to make a good cook fire. Many of the giant trees that survived a forest fire on the eastern side of Vancouver Island in the 1600s die by axe during the coal boom days. Pit props, sawn lumber for “proper” houses, and trestles and wood ties for the railroad beds are needed to bring the coal to market. The view in the new community of Union is small wooden cabins, closely built and endless tree stumps.

There is always a risk of fire when you are surrounded by forest and living in wooden houses – and a need for people to fight fires. Twenty-five volunteers sign up for the original Cumberland and Union Fire Department in 1894. Union Bay takes on the responsibility for their own firefighting in 1898 after Cumberland incorporates as a city. In 1897 Cumberland installs a water system, hoses replace bucket brigades and plans are underway to build a fire hall.

Historic fires

June and July are dry months. The Japanese Canadian community suffers through a bad fire in July 1927 at No.5 Japanese Town where 26 houses are destroyed. A lack of hydrants and low water pressure hinder fire fighting efforts. Fortunately, no one is seriously injured but it will take years to rebuild.

In 1928 an electric siren is installed at the fire hall. When the fire bell sounds Cumberlanders know to turn off their water otherwise there won’t be enough pressure in the lines for the hoses to be effective. Over the years, funds are raised to purchase hose reels, pumper trucks and other equipment. Some of the money comes from the Collieries, whose property is most at risk, but most of the funds are raised through dances, benefits and passing the hat at community events.

The big fire of 1933 guts downtown Cumberland and is only stopped from spreading by blowing up the Royal Bank. There was a serious fire in 1932 as well, but the second fire in July 1933 is worse, destroying eighteen businesses and eleven homes on Dunsmuir and Derwent as well as a number of outbuildings. The Waverley, the King George and the Victory Hotel are all heavily damaged. Because of insurance claims from the 1932 fires, many people are underinsured. Times are hard.

A relief fund is set up to support families with a concert organized in Royston and generous contributions from residents of No.1 and No.5 Japanese Town. They know what it is like to lose everything.

A large fire in Cumberland Chinatown in 1935 destroys 43 buildings, many of which have been abandoned since the Chinese workers moved away after being forbidden to work underground in 1923. The remaining merchant families still living in Chinatown relocate to Cumberland or Courtenay and don’t rebuild, leaving Chinatown nearly empty except for a few older men on relief who have lived here their whole working lives. They continue to pay the Colliery company $1.00 a month rent.

Training and CVFD today

Training is ongoing when you are a volunteer firefighter. There is a case full of trophies at the fire hall won by CVFD over the years in competitions within the province and around the world.

When the Inland Highway opens, the CVFD knows they will be called to a lot more traffic incidents and training for auto extraction is prioritized. In October 2001 the auto extraction team takes first place in the Western Canada Firefighting finals in Brandon, Manitoba, where most of the other participants are paid firefighters from larger urban centres. The Village of Cumberland doesn’t have the $20,000.00 needed to send the team to compete in the Czech Republic so a public appeal is made in the local newspaper. In the late Spring the Cumberland Community School, Scouting and Guiding groups host a spaghetti dinner and a whopping $13,000.00 is raised. The team goes to Europe! They don’t place in their first attempt but bring back new techniques and skills from the tournament. They took third place when Ottawa hosts the world competition a few years later.

The Cumberland Volunteer Fire Department has been serving Cumberland for 125 years. I ask Mike Williamson, the current Cumberland Fire Chief, what is the worst fire he has ever been called to fight. He says the biggest fire is a sawmill fire on Royston Road but the worst is a house fire where two small children perish. Sadly, there were no smoke detectors in the house. After that fire, Elizabeth Parkin organizes the community and set up a smoke detector fund at the Cumberland Credit Union and by March of 1993, pairs of firefighters and volunteers go door to door throughout the village testing and installing smoke detectors.

Firefighters are a presence in the community –  your neighbours and friends. They lead the May Day parade with the heritage trucks, in front because there could be a call out at any time. They support the annual Hike for Hunger and Toy Drive, drive Santa to Village Square in December and chip your Christmas tree to support local charities. They participate in school education programs and rain or shine they practice every Tuesday night. During COVID quarantine children’s birthday parties are cancelled but small family gatherings are enlivened by a fire truck drive by and a shout out to the birthday child over the fire truck PA system.

Craig Windley lived on the top floor of the old Fire Hall when he was a child in the early 1960s. His father was a firefighter, his brother and sister have both served as volunteer firefighters and Craig is a current member of the CVFD (Deputy Chief). There are generations of firefighters from the same families in Cumberland. In the 1980s there were three 50 year service awards given out in British Columbia to honour volunteer firefighters. All three were from Cumberland. This year Mike Williamson marks 45 years of service and Leonard Banks 50 years of service. Leonard’s father, grandfather brother and one of his daughters have all volunteered for the CVFD.

A new fire hall is being built on Maple Street that should be operational by the end of 2020. CVFD is currently recruiting new members. It is a great opportunity to give back to the community and add to the legacy of the next 125 years.