Prior to the formation of the Alta Lake Volunteer Fire Department (ALVFD), the Alta Lake area had no official response to fires – they were put out by the small community. But after two large fires in the early 1960s, some residents decided to form their own fire department.
The first fire is still a little mysterious. One a reportedly beautiful morning in April, a single passenger got off the Budd car at the Alta Lake Station. His outfit, a trench coat and dress shoes, drew the notice of everyone at the station as he asked Don Cruickshank, the station agent, how to get to the other side of the lake.
Later that same day, Dick Fairhurst received a call from Cruickshank to check on smoke coming from the area of an old empty lodge. Fairhurst and Louis White grabbed a small fire extinguisher and a bucket each and ran to Fairhurst’s boat. When they arrived at the lodge, they found that the fire had taken hold in some piles of lumber inside the three-storey building and that their buckets and extinguisher would be of no use. They also found a piece of candle at the back of the lodge, and footprints from dress shoes in the soggy ground.
By the time the evening train arrived, two RCMP officers from Pemberton were aboard and waiting to arrest the stranger in the trench coat, who had been pacing in the station while waiting for the train. Though we don’t know what happened to this mysterious man after his arrest, we do know that the date of the trial was set for June 6, 1962, the date of the second fire.
This second fire appears to have been far more accidental than the first. The provincial government was building a new highway to connect old logging roads, small community roads, and the Pemberton Trail. The surveyors and their families were staying in cabins and lodges throughout Alta Lake.
One couple, Bruce and Anne Robinson, were staying in a cabin at Cypress Lodge, owned by Dick and Kelly Fairhurst. Anne chose June 6, a warm day with no wind, to make bread in the old Kootenay Range in the cabin. Dick was at the trial in Vancouver and Kelly had gone to vote at the Community Hall (it’s not entirely clear what the vote was for, but it is likely it was for the federal election). She and her children had just arrived home when Bruce arrived at Cypress Lodge to discover the roof of his cabin on fire. Kelly got on the party line, interrupting Alec Greenwood’s call to his mother-in-low to announce the fire.
Luckily, Bill and Joan Green and a group of loggers were hanging out at Rainbow Lodge after voting. Bill radioed to the Van West logging operation to bring their fire pump, and Alex loaded his pump onto his tractor. Soon everyone in the area know about the fire, and many of them came to help.
The fire, which had started from smouldering sparks in needles on the shake roof, had spread to a storage shed, but the lack of wind prevented it from spreading further. Someone moved Dick’s truck onto the road, but other vehicles, piles of dry wood, and cans of gasoline, paint, diesel and propane were still around the property.
The two pumps were used to get the fire under control, and then to keep wetting everything down. The Robinsons lost almost everything in the cabin, and many pieces of Bert Harrop’s cedar-bark furniture that were stored in the shed were lost, along with the two-rope for skiing on Mount Sproatt.
Alex Philip spent the night patrolling the area for sparks, but the fire was truly out by the time Dick arrived home the next day. The community came together again to help with the clean up.
When the ALVFD was formed later in 1962, its members were Dick Fairhurst, Doug Mansell, Stefan Ples, and Glen Creelman. They held regular practises and, until the formation of the Resort Municipality of Whistler in 1975, relied on fundraisers such as the Ice Break-Up Raffle and the Fireman’s Ball to buy supplies. The residents of the valley relied on them in case of emergencies.
How well I remember the “old empty lodge” on the other side of Alta Lake. By the standards of the day, it was a very imposing structure: three stories high, rectangular with a single gable roof, long side facing the lake, and a single long balcony at the second story level. By the time it burned, it had been in existence for a least two summers, perhaps longer. It was built on the small promontory on the east side of the lake where the Christiana Inn would later be built. At that time, however, the land was still in its natural state — treed and rocky — and the lodge, which was intended to be a hotel, stood much higher than the buildings there today (Sandy Martin bulldozed the site flat before building the Christiana, thereby expanding the property at the same time). The owner, I believe, was a man called Higgins.
Sometime in the summer of ’61, when I was ten years old, some friends and I ventured across the lake in our rowboats to explore the lodge (children in those days were given a very wide berth in arranging their own entertainment; we basically went wherever we wanted and were only expected to show up for dinner). Construction of the lodge had ceased at least a year before. There was a shake or shingle roof, the outside was clad only in shiplap, and the window and door openings were boarded over. We managed to find a loose board covering an opening at the back, through which we entered. The interior was cavernous and gloomy, the only light filtering through cracks in the cladding. A rickety staircase led to the upper floors, which were largely unfinished — mostly just exposed joists. None of the rooms had been partitioned. Curiously, there were a number of large wooden packing crates stored on the ground floor. I learned later that they contained furniture that Mr. Higgins had purchased in Vancouver during one of the Vancouver Hotel’s periodic refurbishments. I was told they were brought on site by trucks over the very rudimentary logging roads that existed at the time.
I would love to see a picture of the lodge if one exists. It was almost directly across the lake from my bedroom window. As might be expected in a community such as that, stories about the fire swirled for months. I remember tales of the mysterious visitor, footprints (in the snow?) around the lodge, the candle on a stack of newspapers, but I don’t recall anything about the RCMP apprehending the visitor or the subsequent trial.
With respect to the volunteer fire department, I didn’t realize it was formed as early as 1962. I do remember the community fundraising to buy a Wajax fire pump, which was kept at Cypress Lodge and could be loaded either onto Dick Fairhurst’s jeep or his boat as needed.
The joke about the fire department was that they never managed to save a house, but they always managed to save the trees! Most of the fires that occurred in those days were started by faulty or unattended wood stoves. There were few fireplaces in the community, and most cabins had a wood stove both for cooking and heating (sometimes more than one). When a cabin went up in flames, it was consumed very quickly.
Some of the fires I recall occurring during those years include the second one you write about (in which Dick lost his ski tow rope, as well as a cabin and outbuilding), the Eaton’s cabin, which was one of the small community of pre–World War II cabins at the south end of Alta Lake, and of course, Witsend, the summer home of our next-door neighbor, Florence Peterson (then Strachan) and her four teacher friends (Jackie, Kelly, June and Betty).
One fire I actually participated in was in a cabin on the east side of Alta Lake in the little bay just north of where the “old empty lodge” once stood. It may have been a caretaker’s cabin for the lodge, and its owner may have been a woman called Sylvia Higgins (a relative of the lodge owner?) — my memory of these points is a little hazy. At any rate, flames were spotted early one evening (mid-60s?) and I happened to be nearby when the men ran to get the pump and load it into Dick’s motor boat. I jumped on the boat with them and we sped off across the lake, arriving in time to see the cabin crumble and collapse in front of our eyes. We then spent several hours hosing down the trees, thereby demonstrating the veracity of the old joke. My predominant recollection of the event was experiencing the intensity of the heat generated by the burning building