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New Westminster fire—a.k.a. ‘Hyack Company’—celebrates 150 years

Assistant chief Don Embree, and firefighters Bill Shokar and Mike Cameron show off the City of New Westminster fire department’s restored 1929 pumper. The department is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. - MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER
Assistant chief Don Embree, and firefighters Bill Shokar and Mike Cameron show off the City of New Westminster fire department’s restored 1929 pumper. The department is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.
— image credit: MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER

The first big test for New Westminster’s fire department was the Great Fire of 1898.

Though the Hyack Company No. 1 formed on July 24, 1861, the members of the city’s fire crews had never seen anything so catastrophic.

On Sept. 10, 1898, a perfect storm of fire, wind and water came together, and the Hyacks were called to duty at 11 p.m.

It started in a haystack on a wharf adjoining the City Market building, which was soon engulfed in flames. Gusts of wind fanned the fire across the street.

The Hyacks thought they could contain the blaze to this small part of downtown until a third element entered the picture.

Mooring ropes snapped, likely from the flames, causing three blazing steamers to leave the wharf and drift along the docks, spreading fire in their wake.

“The sound is described as a roar of flames going up and down the street,” said local historian Archie Miller of stories he’s read about the Great Fire. “There are sounds of explosions—gunpowder, paint products and windows exploding.”

After the fire, the city rebuilt and grew, and so too did the fire service.

From fighting the city’s Great Fire to helping with rescue efforts in New York after 9/11, the firefighters of New Westminster have much to be proud of this month as they celebrate their 150th anniversary.

One of the first in the west

When the Hyack Company No. 1 formed on July 24, 1861, it was one of the first formalized brigades in western Canada. In British Columbia, only Victoria’s fire squad, organized in 1859, is older. Vancouver’s started  in 1886, Nanaimo’s in 1894 and Surrey’s in 1889.

Before these formalized companies, said Miller, firefighting was haphazard. “They probably had some buckets sitting around but that was it, until a group of people realized they needed protection from fire so they organized.”

Hyack Hall was built in July 1862. Its company of 58 firefighters served 1,800 people living in the city’s 150 buildings.

Their first wagon, the Fire King, came from San Francisco in 1863 and cost $2,600, paid for by the city and Governor James Douglas, who splurged an extra $150 for 500 feet of fire hose. It was man-drawn until 1898, when horses helped the Hyacks to reach fires faster.

Today, much has changed as science and technology have transformed firefighters into professionals trained to battle blazes as well as to extricate victims from car crashes, administer first aid, and dissipate toxic elements.

Pressure fans, extrication equipment, chainsaws, and breathing apparatus are some of the tools on board modern fire engines.

But the ability to think quickly and change tactics at a moment’s notice remains essential to good firefighting, according to Capt. Robert MacDonald, who works at the Glenbrook Fire Hall on East Sixth Street.

“You might not be able to go with the plan you had at your arrival. It changes so quickly. One minute you’re at a motor vehicle accident and the next you’re on the water. It never gets boring. Firefighters are very industrious, very alpha,” said MacDonald. “It’s very rewarding and it’s very, very taxing because you have to multi-task.”

Helping, at home and away

New West’s firefighters have had their fair share of catastrophic disasters, at home and in their work aiding other agencies across the continent.

MacDonald helped out with rescue efforts after 9/11. One of the most significant days of his career was Dec. 7, almost three months after the disaster, when they found 14 firefighters and one police officer in the wreckage.

“The firefighters in New York explained that they were pretty happy when they found someone because there were 343 that were lost but not that many that were found. So the families had closure. It was pretty overwhelming. It changed my life.”

MacDonald added that, though devastating, these tragedies reinforced his connection to his colleagues across countries and time.

The spirit of the Hyack Company is passed on to contemporary firefighters through the J.H. Wyatt, a Mack fire truck named after the man who was acting chief during the Great Fire. It was bought from Seattle in 1929 and served until 1963.

It then spent three decades in the Irving House and New Westminster Museum until the Firefighters Charitable Society took on the task of restoring it in 1993.

“For the young fire fighters who come aboard, it’s a living, breathing vehicle from the past. And for the public as well. It allows us to pass on our history,” MacDonald said.

 

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