Tag Archives: Whistler Fire Department

The End of Brio House

When looking through reports on the 1991 fire in Function Junction that damaged many of the Whistler Question photographs (and more) last week, we came across another fire that took place at the very end of 1990, destroying a property known as Brio House.

This fire was not the first to mark the Hawthorne Place property. The house had already experienced a major fire in April 1987. It was believed that the fire had started with a smouldering couch cushion that spread to a cedar wall and up to the wood ceiling and cedar roof, leaving half of the duplex a “blackened shell.” The other half was saved by the building’s fire wall. Firefighters were on the scene only four minutes after they received the call and within an hour had the fire under control. The flames, which at one point rose up to twenty metres into the air, could reportedly be seen by those leaving the late show at the Rainbow Theatre, including some residents of the house.

Unfortunately, the prints or negatives of the photos from both the 1990 and 1987 fires that were originally published in the Whistler Question were destroyed by the fire in Function Junction just a few weeks later. Whistler Question, 1991.

Almost four years later, the Question reported on another fire at the same property that began on December 30, 1990. Unlike the fire of 1987, however, this fire left the Brio House gutted.

On that Sunday afternoon the Whistler Fire Department responded to a call after residents noticed black smoke pouring through the air vent above the fireplace. The residents tried to put out the fire but then noticed flames in the wall. By the time they realized they would not be able to contain the fire, it was too late for the residents to attempt to save their belongings. Though firefighters were able to control the fire, it was decided that it was too dangerous to send firefighters inside and the main concern was to protect the neighbouring houses.

This and the photo before were submitted by Jan Holmberg, a neighbour in Hawthorne Place and the owner of the building in Function Junction that burned down later in January. Whistler Question, 1991.

One reason both fires were considered so newsworthy was because of the number of people they affected. In 1987 the property was described in the Question as “Whistler’s most controversial and popular multi-resident home,” due to the number of people living in the large duplex and its use as temporary housing for visitors and recent arrivals to Whistler. The owner, Dave Whiffen (who in 1987 lived in a suite in the basement), was trying to have his property rezoned as an eight bedroom pension; the municipality had previously fined Whiffen for using the building’s basement and loft when the main floor already used up the permitted 360 sq. metres. The municipality stated that Whiffen had overbuilt and was running a “hotel” on his property, while Whiffen maintained that the duplex was “a necessary source of low-cost accommodation for Whistler service-industry personnel.”

By the evening of December 30, 1990, twenty residents were left homeless. Some were temporarily put up by neighbours while others were lodged in Blackcomb Mountain staff housing. According to then-Question editor Bob Barnett, “Offers by Whistlerites and businesses to house and feed the Brio residents and to hold a benefit for them were made before the fire was completely extinguished.” Whiffen, who by that time had moved out of Whistler, told the paper that he planned to rebuild “a regular duplex” and sell the property, putting an end to Brio House.

Fire in Function Junction

A few weeks ago during our Speaker Series on journalism in Whistler, technical difficulties unfortunately prevented a question being asked about a fire that destroyed the production office of The Whistler Question in Function Junction in 1991. As we weren’t able to learn more about the fire from the knowledgeable people at the speaker event, both presenting and in the audience, we thought we’d start by taking a quick look at what the Question had to say about it.

The fire was actually only one of two large fires in Whistler on Friday, January 18, 1991. At Rainbow the building housing Rainbow Rentals, Rainbow Paint and Supply, Whistler Woodheat, Whistler Welding, Allan May Project Management and the truck division of Budget Rent-A-Car also had a fire. As there were no hydrants in the area and the building contained tanks of propane, oxygen and acetylene as well as cans of oil-based paints and industrial solvents, the decision was made that it was too dangerous for firefighters to go into the building. Instead, the highway was closed and the building was allowed to burn.

The rubble left after the Rainbow fire burned out, including a woodstove. Whistler Question Collection, 1991.

In Function Junction, around 2:30 am, Kevin Swanlund was the only employee in the building that housed Yurrop Trading, Mountain Crests, the kitchen of The Gourmet, Little Mountain Bakery, and the Question production office when he noticed a fire. Swanlund attempted to put out the fire with an extinguisher but it kept coming back stronger. His actions alerted Carrie Waller and her daughter Amanda, who lived in the apartment upstairs, to the fire. The pair found the stairwell blocked but were able to use a ladder to climb down from the balcony.

Fire Chief Tony Evans described the fire as “a tough one to fight,” though the fire department responded promptly and were able to control the fire. A fire hydrant on the property was not connected to the municipal water system and had reportedly frozen, though luckily there were municipal hydrants nearby. The fire department did not confirm a cause of the fire, but were able to say that it appeared to have started near the building’s electrical panel.

The Whistler Question production office after the fire. Whistler Question Collection, 1991.

By the time the Question came out the next Thursday, most of the businesses affected already had plans to reopen. Jan Holmberg, who owned the building and co-owned Yurrop Trading and Mountain Crests, told the Question that Mountain Crests had already located an embroidery machine in Seattle and rented space in another building and would soon be at half their usual production. Rick and Doris Matthews, the co-owners of The Gourmet, had begun cooking at home and in another kitchen while setting up in another Function Junction building, though they expected that for the next month they would be able to produce only about half of their “signature products.” Luckily for The Gourmet, most of their kitchen equipment was saved.

The co-owners of Little Mountain Bakery, Pierre LePage and Andy Schoni, both decided to use the fire as an opportunity for short vacations before beginning operations at 1212 Alpha Lake Road in February. Like The Gourmet, most of Little Mountain Bakery’s equipment was saved but the bakery lost all of their supplies.

Patrick Sarrazin helps baker Andy Schoni clean up trays after the fire at Little Mountain Bakery. Whistler Question Collection, 1991.

The Question production office was not burned but was heavily damaged by smoke and water. The Question lost computers, a laser printer, a photocopier, darkroom equipment, and five years worth of irreplaceable photographs. The paper was able to set up a temporary office in the Blackcomb Ski Club cabin and, thanks to the help of Rick Clare, Whistler Printing and Blackcomb Lodge, were able to stick to their normal publishing schedule.

The fires of January 18, 1991, affected eleven businesses in Whistler in Rainbow and Function Junction, though most were able to reopen. Firefighters were able to save a collection of negatives from 1978 to 1985 from the fire. Thanks to Question photographer Brian Smith, these negatives were restored and are now housed in the archives where the Whistler Question Collection is an invaluable resource that is used almost daily at the Whistler Museum. The Whistler Question Collection now includes photographs of different facets of life in the Whistler area from 1978 to 1986 and from 1991 to 1996. Unfortunately, due to the photographs lost in the fire the years between 1986 and 1991 are not as well represented.

Burning Down the House

To many, the photograph of a group posed around and on a rustic house is a familiar image of a different era in Whistler, when the nearest grocery store was often found in Squamish and only one mountain had any lifts operating.  In 2011, Sarah Drewery, then the Collections Manager at the Whistler Museum, conducted an oral history with Andy and Bonnie Munster, and asked about the history of the house in the picture, which Andy called home for about five years in the 1970s.

The house before its demolition and eventual burning. Greg Griffith Collection.

Andy first came to Whistler in 1971 to ski.  He had been expecting something bigger and drove straight through to Green Lake before realizing he had passed it.  According to him, in his first four years in the area he ran into problems finding a place to rent and so in 1975 he and two friends, Randy and Dave, decided to squat and build their own cabin.  Randy, who came from California, chose the site near Fitzsimmons Creek and decided that they didn’t want anything plastic in the house, preferring wood and natural materials.  With little money to spare amongst them, the cabin was built almost entirely out of recycled materials.

Construction began in the spring or summer of 1975, often relying on what they could find in the dump.  They found lumber that had been thrown away after another construction project finished their foundations, old fashioned windows that somebody no longer needed, and couches in pristine condition.  Other items were donated by people they knew or sold to them cheaply, such as a cast iron cook stove and wood heater that Seppo Makinen sold to them for $20.  Andy estimated that by the time they finished the house it cost a total of $50 and included an upstairs, a sunroom, a large woodshed, and an outhouse.

The house just before it was set alight. Whistler Question Collection.

The house was comfortable but keeping it running was a lot of work.  All of the heating came from wood and each fall they would have to cut at least eight cords of firewood.  Water had to be hauled from Fitzsimmons Creek in buckets, though in summer they could use a water wheel, and heated on the stove for showers and washing.  Andy recalled that there were a few times when they decided not to have the wood stove on and then woke up with frost in their mustaches and beards.  Luckily, the house was quick to warm up and stayed warm for quite a while.

In late 1978, most of the squatters on Crown land in Whistler were served with eviction notices.  According to Andy they were shocked and seeing the notice “your heart kind of sinks down,” but they were able to meet with the provincial and municipal governments and negotiate a year’s extension.  When it came time to leave the house, they have away furniture, took out the windows and any reusable materials, and talked to the fire department about what to do with the shell.

In a speaker event last fall, Jim Moodie mentioned that, as part of the team managing the village construction, he was partly responsible for burning down Andy Munster’s home.  The eviction notices were served around the time that the first ground was broken on the village site and, as Andy put it, “We were actually just moving out when the pile drivers and everything were starting in the village.”  The shell of their house was used by the fire department for fire practice and, after trying a few different things, they let it burn to the ground.

The fire department controls the burning of the house while its inhabitants and friends look on. Whistler Question Collection.

The fire was documented in another series of photographs, depicting what many felt to be the end of an era.  The next few years saw the construction of Whistler Village and the opening of Blackcomb Mountain not far from the site of that house, where Andy said if you were to walk past today “you’d never know it was there.”

The Village’s Oldest Building

What is the oldest building in the Whistler Village?

This is a question we have been asked many times, especially when leading Valley of Dreams Walking Tours through the village during the summer.  While some questions about Whistler’s history have very simple answers, the answer to this one is not entirely straightforward.

Municipal Hall could be considered the oldest.  The structure was built in the early 1970s and opened its doors in 1974, a year before the Resort Municipality of Whistler was formed and a full five years before construction began on plans for the stroll-centred village we know today.  At the time the building was home to a Keg ‘N Cleaver restaurant, better known as The Keg.  It was not, however, located in the village.

One section of the Keg makes its way slowly up Lorimer Road. Note the rocks blasted off the corner and the BC Hydro employee on the roof. Photo: Whistler Question, 1981

The original location of the Municipal Hall building was in Adventures West on the north end of Alta Lake.  Over the May long weekend of 1981, the building made a well-documented move to its current location.  Despite its earlier construction, the Keg was moved beside another building that could also claim the title for oldest Village building by opening in the Village a year earlier: the Public Safety Building.

Construction of the Public Safety Building (PSB) began some time in 1979.  During this period it went by various names, including the Public Service Building and Tri-Service Building.  An image of the architect Raymond Letkeman’s drawing of the building was published in the Whistler Question in July and by the council meeting of October 5, when approval for a development permit for construction of the building was given after a public hearing, the progress on the PSB was reportedly “up to the roof line.”  The building was predicted to be closed in by early November and ready to occupy in the early winter.

The new Public Safety building starts to take shape as the snow creeps down Whistler Mountain behind.  Photo: Whistler Question, 1979.

Many other buildings were under construction at the time.  In November new access roads into the town centre were poured.  Photos from 1979 show the town centre as a large construction site with a school, the first Myrtle Philip School, along one edge.  The school relocated to Tapley’s Farm in 1992 and the old building was torn down, taking it out of the running for oldest village building.

The PSB was officially opened by Mayor Pat Carleton and a lineup of officials on May 3, 1980.  Representatives from the three services to be housed in the building (the RCMP, the BC Ambulance service and the Whistler Fire Department) were present, as well as approximately one hundred onlookers from the public, a good crowd for such an event in 1980.  Once the ribbon was cut and the fire doors and flag raised, the public was invited inside to view the fireman’s slide pole and the new jail cells.

The new Public Service building has its finishing touches added and new cells installed.  Photo: Whistler Question, 1980

The building was not completely finished by May 3.  The smell of fresh paint still lingered and some parts were still in the “dry-wall” stage.  A heli-pad behind the building had been completed only the day before.

The PSB was put to good use within weeks of it opening.  On May 11 a fire at the municipal landfill led to the first call out of the Whistler Volunteer Fire Department from their new home and by May 22 the RCMP reported that six people had spent some time in the new cells.

The new Public Service Building looks sharp with its new paint and brown and white decor. Photo: Whistler Question, 1980

Not all of the space in the PSB was assigned when it first opened.  There was talk of rooms being used as a courthouse, meeting rooms or council chambers.  Over the years the services housed in the PSB have changed, as has the building.  The ambulance service moved to its own building on Lorimer Road and space was added behind the PSB to house the RCMP service.