A curtain flutters through broken glass as fiery flakes litter the snow-covered ground. Despite the cold, onlookers feel the heat while they watch, helplessly, as the roof gives way. The air is thick with smoke as flames continue to lick the remaining walls and furniture quickly becomes ash.
I imagine it didn’t take long for a wooden structure to burn to the ground back in 1892. Especially without any way of fighting the flames. It was this fire, at the boarding house for employees of Grant and Mounce Sawmill, in Union (now the Village of Cumberland), that underlined the need for fire protection services in a booming community of wood frame homes surrounded by a forest full of dry brush.
Financially supported by the Union Coal Company (UCC), a collection of 25 men volunteered to form a fire department in June 1894. The first fire chief was Alex Grant and Jack Bruce became Assistant Chief.
The Cumberland and Union Volunteer Fire Department was swiftly put to the test with two single-structure fires in January 1895. Then, during Cumberland’s first multi-structure fires in early July 1896, the tireless energy and quick thinking of firefighters, plus help from willing onlookers, saved the sawmill, the slaughter yards, and the town from obstinate advancing flames. All of this was accomplished by a bucket brigade using water sourced from wooden pipes running down Dunsmuir Avenue, connected to a sump filled at Grant and Mounce Sawmill. Some burning buildings were demolished by hand with axes. (Oh, the heat!)
A pressurized water system came into use for the fire department in 1897. This remarkable accomplishment encouraged considerable fundraising for equipment and the construction of a fire hall. It also facilitated a reorganization of the department, and Jack Bruce was promoted to Fire Chief, a position he would hold for a decade.
The fire hall was constructed on Dunsmuir Avenue in 1898, the same year the village was incorporated as Cumberland, and the fire department was renamed Cumberland Volunteer Fire Department (CVFD). In 1911, the Village of Cumberland took over the fire department with the intention of paying the volunteers—but this didn’t end up happening until about 2005.
Although half its volunteers enlisted in WWI, the CVFD continued to protect the community from threat of fire. It became the first department in British Columbia with motorized firefighting equipment, after raising significant funds to purchase a motor truck. Clearly the community valued its firefighters.
The 1920s and ’30s were fiery years for Cumberland. In 1922, four businesses were completely extinguished by a fire that started in a café and quickly spread to the stores on either side. The family who lived above one of the stores was rescued, without injury, through the front windows. Later that year, a fire in Bevan nearly destroyed the entire residential and business section, including the laundry where the fire originated.
The last week of July 1927 kept firefighters busy. First, an alarm from Chinatown alerted them to a restaurant with its roof and upper story ablaze. Later that same morning, a Cumberland resident’s roof caught fire. The following afternoon, 26 homes in No. 5 Japanese Town were destroyed, leaving many people homeless. Low water pressure was still an issue in the village and surrounding areas at the time—people and businesses had to turn their water off so the firefighters could get the hoses working as they should—but, thankfully, no lives were lost.
Two major fires happened in 1930. One levelled a store in Chinatown and a second destroyed the hall above the Union Hotel. In February of 1932, fire took out most of the business district on Dunsmuir Avenue, including the Ilo-Ilo Theatre and the Masonic Lodge. Although firefighters rushed to the scene, they were again hampered by insufficient water pressure and were unable to save the buildings.
Then, in July of 1933, fire broke out in the King George Hotel. Boosted by a strong southeast wind, the fire quickly moved east and west on the south side of Dunsmuir Avenue between Second and Third streets, then jumped across to the north side of Dunsmuir. The eastward spread of the fire was only contained by firefighters dynamiting the burning Royal Bank building.
In the end, the fire destroyed over 17 businesses and 11 homes. Only six days later, two fire alarms sounded and panic ensued! A chimney and a roof fire were quickly brought under control without serious damage—to everyone’s relief.
Along with the fires mentioned above, three large fires in 1934 further reinforced the importance of a sufficient water supply and quality equipment for good fire protection. In response, the CVFD started a “pumper fund” later that year and made the first contribution. In April 1935, their dedication paid off, literally, with the arrival of the Darley front-mounted centrifugal pump. The same fund raised enough money to replace an old truck with a new truck and pump, further improving fire protection services in the community.
The following decades saw the occasional sizable fire that destroyed homes and businesses, but also the expansion of the CVFD’s protection area and the modernization of the department’s fleet. Starting in 1956, ambulance service was provided by firefighters—with nothing more than basic first-aid training—until the provincial government took over in 1974. In 2001, the first female firefighter, Becky Parlby, joined the crew; she served until 2006.
Today, the crew consists of one full-time fire chief (Mike Williamson), one full-time deputy chief (Stéphane Dionne), and 30 active volunteer members—Cumberlanders’ friends and neighbours. Each member undergoes extensive training that adheres to strict standards set out by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Members are also trained in wildland firefighting, so they can be deployed, when needed, to assist with province-wide wildfire emergencies.
In addition to structure fires, members routinely attend to emergency and non-emergency situations, such as first responder calls, motor vehicle incidents, and rescues. They provide protection for approximately 8,000 residents within the Village and surrounding areas; they also have mutual-assistance partnerships with every fire department in the Valley, from Oyster Bay to Deep Bay—and in between.
But it’s not all about fire.
From its inception, community involvement has been at the heart of the CVFD. Members take part in annual parades and various community events, they compete in firefighting competitions, and they provide education in the form of fire awareness and prevention programs. It’s not hyperbole to declare they’re a dedicated bunch—some new, some second or third generation, some fathers and sons, some sets of brothers—rushing from the dinner table, a dead sleep, a teacher conference, or the shower when that pager goes off.
As Mayor Vickey Brown eloquently puts it:
“The people in our fire department are friends and neighbours. We know what they give up to volunteer; all those training hours, and practices, and the commitment to the department and its members—time lost with their families, not to mention the stress and trauma. So I’m grateful every time I hear the sirens, every time I drive by that beautiful new hall, and every time I see the dedicated, courageous team of firefighters from our little Village keeping us safe.”
Chief Mike Williamson is nearing 50 years of service with the department. When asked why he’s stuck around so long, and whether he still loves his job, Chief Williamson replies: “This is where I grew up. My family has a heavy interest in the community and its protection. I’m honoured to have my position as Fire Chief, and to have held it for so long.”
In 2021, a brand-new fire hall was constructed on Cumberland Road—a reassuring sight for arriving visitors. And in June of 2024, the Cumberland Volunteer Fire Department, now Cumberland Fire Rescue, will mark its 130th anniversary.
The crew’s motto in the 1900s was “we strive to save,” and, so many years later, it continues to ring true. They are always at our service.
To learn more about Cumberland Fire Rescue, follow them on Facebook. If you’re interested in volunteering or have inquiries about school tours, smoke detectors, or fire prevention programs, call (250) 336-3006.