Fire still smouldering under New Westminster pier park as crews try to get access to burning pilings

British Columbia

Fire still smouldering under New Westminster pier park as crews try to get access to burning pilings

New Westminster's mayor says the fire is under control and firefighters are now working to pry off the planks to get to the heart of the flames that lie underneath and continue to eat at the showcase attraction on the city's waterfront.

Old part of pier is not salvageable, fire officials say; cause of Sunday's blaze still unknown

Firefighters work to douse the Westminster Pier Park fire that destroyed sections of the old pier and damaged the “W” shaped Wow Westminster sculpture. Picture taken from the SkyTrain on Sept. 14. (Miles Stoelwinder)

The fire that engulfed a swath of Westminster Pier Park in New Westminster, B.C., late Sunday continues to smoulder.

The city's mayor says the fire is under control and firefighters are now working to pry off the planks to get to the heart of the flames that lie underneath and continue to eat at the showcase attraction on the city's waterfront.

A cause is not yet known for the fire that burned through around 2.5 hectares of historic dock, fuelled by creosote-infused pilings beneath.

New Westminster police's major crime unit is investigating but officers say they have not been able to get access to the active fire scene yet, given the danger, so they are checking closed circuit video and canvassing for clues about what could have lit the flames.

“It's challenging if people won't come forward. It leaves us at a standstill,” said Sgt. Sanjay Kumar.

The massive fire has destroyed one of the oldest parts of the long-standing pier, which had been incorporated into the new park that opened in 2012. The attraction included an urban beach where people could play volleyball, lounge in hammocks, walk the 600 metre-long boardwalk.

The Wow Westminster installation — a huge piece of public art comprising four shipping containers shaped into a “W” — was heavily damaged in the fire. 

WATCH | Video of Sunday night's fire that destroyed a stretch of the pier:

A massive fire tore through Westminster Pier Park in New Westminster, B.C., on Sept. 13, 2020. The city's mayor said the old section of the promenade, cherished by locals and favoured by tourists, was likely completely destroyed. 1:01

The loss of the park is evoking sadness from some residents, like Mayor Jonathan Cote, who often used the park with his family.

He said he hopes the fire will be put out late Tuesday or Wednesday, but says the process of getting to the flames under the old deck is “difficult.”

It's also dangerous, others add, given the smoke being released by the creosote-soaked pilings.

“You could just taste it in the air,” said James Crosty, a former New Westminster mayoral candidate who was never a fan of the redevelopment on what he described as “an old derelict pier.”

Crosty said fire safety concerns were no secret during construction of the $33-million park project.

In the past, homeless people have lit fires under the pier to stay warm, he said.

“It's a tinder box,” Crosty said.

“That thing is going to burn for days. Creosote doesn't get put out overnight.”

The 'Wow Westminster' public art installation, pictured before the fire. The SkyBridge is visible in the background. (City of New Westminster)

The fire did not reach the newer part of the park, which was built on pilings made of steel instead of century-old timber.

Crosty said that's fortunate because it's the location of a “big toxic blob” that was contained in concrete during the park's construction. “That's sitting underneath all of this water area that's been redeveloped,” he said.

The city confirmed that during construction of the park it did have to remediate toxic soil and contain a “dense, nonaqueous phase liquid” that tested positive for chlorinated solvents from the shore, which has seen industrial use since the late-1800s.

'Not salvageable'

On Monday, three nearby schools were closed because of the smoke billowing from the fire.

By Tuesday, services including libraries and community centres, as well as the provincial court registry, had closed due to the smoke, but all schools had reopened. Front Street remains closed to traffic, and many downtown businesses are also closed.

Fire Chief Tim Armstrong in New Westminster. (Yvette Brend/CBC News)

The pier is not entirely destroyed, but Fire Chief Tim Armstrong says it will not be salvageable.

“[The fire is] still going. It's just really difficult to get to,” Armstrong said on Monday, when he estimated it may take several days to douse this fire.

“The access is the tough part. We can't put crews safely on top of it.”

Helicopters were unable to fly Monday due to the poor air quality, with smoke wafting from Washington state wildfires choking the local skies.

Anyone with information about the fire is asked to call investigators with the major crime unit at 604-525-5411.

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