As the last of the Christmas shoppers hurried home on December 24, 1973 someone noticed the flickering light of what appeared to be a fire in one of the local stores. Indeed it was a fire. In fact, it was the first sign of a fire that would soon consume one of Ladysmith’s landmarks, Geering Store — a majestic three-story building built back in 1902. As the fire grew in intensity, a shopper on the street rushed into the Traveller’s Hotel and shouted, “Geering’s store is on fire.” The bartender quickly looked across the street, saw the flames emerging from the building, and rushed to a phone. Within minutes, the Ladysmith Volunteer Fire Department were on the scene. Unfortunately, in those few precious minutes, the fire had spread throughout the building, and flames began to shoot out of the windows of the top floors. Luckily, the apartments that were located on these two floors were unoccupied.
Fire Chief Joe Grouhel quickly assessed the situation and realized the building would likely be lost. Now it was his responsibility to ensure that the fire didn’t spread to the rest of the downtown core. He called for reinforcements, knowing that his department of only 29 wouldn’t be enough. Soon, the Chemainus and North Oyster Fire Departments were on the scene, and the three fire departments started working in harmony to fight the fire.
One of Fire Chief Grouhel’s greatest concerns was the fact that only 15 feet or so from the burning building sat a 500-gallon propane tank. Propane tanks are safe under normal conditions or near a fire, because they are designed to blow off gas through a safety relief valve when the tank heats up. But in this case, there was a problem. The tank was “very” close to the burning building, and this fire was described by some of the firefighters as a “hot fire.” A hot fire is much hotter than a conventional home type of a fire. In fact, the fire was so hot that the paint on the fire truck, parked a reasonable distance from the fire, had its paint scorched, and the windows of buildings across the street were cracking. Propane tanks can and do explode when the pressure inside the tank is greater than the relief valve can release. When liquid propane changes from a liquid to a gas, its volume increases 17 times, increasing the pressure within the tank dramatically. In a fire such as this one, the heat can also weaken the metal of the tank. Had the tank “blown,” as seen in videos on YouTube, the destruction of the centre of the downtown core would have been massive, and likely the firefighters and the crowd of spectators that had gathered would have been killed or wounded from the fireball, heat and flying metal from the exploding tank.
Key to preventing this from happening was the need to keep the tank cool. The fire department set up a separate hose with a special nozzle to keep pouring water on the tank to keep it cool. Luckily, Jack McNaught, proprietor of the Traveller’s Hotel, who was had 16 years experience on the Saanich Fire Department, was there to help out along with others. It was reported that he “was able to handle the departments deluge nozzle on the (towns) new fire truck, and his experience enabled him to direct attention to danger areas.” It was also noted that he had cold beers from the Traveller’s sent over to help cool him off.
Over the years, the fire department had developed a master plan of how they would fight a fire in order to save the downtown core. Their plans took into account the different seasons, weather conditions and wind direction. As reported, one of the senior members of the department said, “we have fought this fire a hundred times over the years.” With this plan in place, water screens were set up to prevent the flames from spreading to the other wooden buildings that surrounded the fire. A team worked from the roof of John Clarkson’s building, just to the east of the fire, to make sure it didn’t also catch fire. All this was happening while John Clarkson was rescuing important records and files and putting them in the warehouse for safety. In the end, the eastern wall of the Geering’s building was pushed into the centre of the fire to prevent it from landing on the Clarkson building when it collapsed.
On the south side of the Geering building was the W.C.T. Brown building (the present day site of the purple building next to the Pharmasave). At that time, it housed the town library, the Hobby Hut and, upstairs, the Sports Centre (a pool hall). Even with a water screen, the heat was so intense that it burnt the wooden door going into the Sports Centre. Likely, the building would have also caught on fire, but because the exterior of the building had been coated in stucco years before, it helped prevent it from becoming engulfed in flames.
The light from the fire lit up the winter sky, and as a result, the glow and the flames could be seen from many parts of town. This drew many people downtown to watch the “excitement.” So those that had been in the Traveller’s Hotel when the fire was first reported stayed, as they had ring-side seats to all the action. One story tells of some of the patrons sitting on a small bench in front of the hotel, with beers in hand, watching all the activities. An RCMP officer spotted them “drinking in public” and dumped out their beers onto the sidewalk before continuing on. Undeterred, they just went back inside and got another beer.
The Ladysmith Chronicle, in its write up, said Bob Geering, the store’s owner, was treated for shock over his loss, and to make matters worse, during the fire, someone broke into his car and stole some stereo records he had purchased as presents.
Almost all of the Ladysmith firefighters, and those that responded from the Chemainus and North Oyster Fire Departments, spent the whole night and into the early morning fighting the fire. On Christmas Day, many of the Ladysmith firefighters had to again leave their families and Christmas festivities to go back down to the building remains and put out various “spot” fires that broke out. Luckily, no one was killed or seriously hurt, but three local firemen (two who lived in town — Murray Davidson and Barry Dashwood — and George Wrean, who was not a member of the department, but lent a hand) did receive minor injuries.
Ladysmith got off lucky that night through good planning and the dedication and skill of all those who chose to become a member of our and other volunteer firefighters. So over this Christmas season remember and give thanks for all those past, present and future firefighters that are willing to drop everything, even at this time of the year, to help all of us.
At least that’s as I see it…