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Fire flattens New Westminster retail landmark

No injuries were reported from the blaze that flattened a block in New Westminster Thursday, however, eight retail stores and three offices were destroyed.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

The New Westminster fire department is investigating the cause of a large fire that swept through several businesses near the city's waterfront, levelling what was considered a landmark.

The fire broke out in the 600-block of Columbia Street around 4 a.m. Thursday, when witnesses reported hearing several explosions, New Westminster fire chief Tim Armstrong said. The fire eventually consumed the E.L. Lewis block, flattening the building that was once home to a local legend, Copp's Shoes, before spreading. A bridal boutique, a bead store, a Vietnamese restaurant and a vegan café were among the businesses affected. There were 11 tenants in all: eight retail and three offices.

Terry Brine, the former owner of Copp's Shoes, who still co-owns the block, said it was emotional to see the destruction of a building that has played such a big role in his life. Copp's, "the family shoe store," had been in business since 1925, spanning four generations of Mr. Brine's family before closing last year.

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"Does it ever hit you hard," Mr. Brine told media as firefighters doused the blaze nearby. "I've worked in that store there for 42 years and basically grew up there. [I] retired out of it, but the new tenants are in there and did a nice job renovating, and wow, it's all gone. It's just terrible."

Mr. Brine said other tenants he spoke to were in a "state of disbelief."

Mr. Armstrong said there were reports roofers had been working on the building the previous day, using propane. However, that has not been confirmed and it is too early to determine whether that might have caused the fire, he said. Fortunately, no injuries were reported.

"We're very lucky," Mr. Armstrong said. "Buildings can be replaced and all that, but firefighters and the public can't."

New Westminster councillor Jaime McEvoy, chair of the local community heritage commission, called the blaze the greatest loss since a fire in 1898 ravaged one-third of the city's waterfront and downtown core.

While the former Copp's Shoes site was not officially designated as a heritage building – which would come with legal protection and restrictions – it was on an unofficial list of properties deemed to have heritage value, Mr. McEvoy said.

The Victorian-Italianate-style building, also called the Crescent Block, was constructed in 1904 and contributed significantly to the "consistent and distinctive build form of Columbia Street," according to the city's heritage planning files.

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During the fire, the city of New Westminster's electrical operations department cut the power for the circuit affected. It was restored in some buildings by late afternoon, however others – such as those between Sixth Street and Begbie Street – could be in the dark until Saturday, according to the city.

Columbia Street was closed between Fourth and Eighth streets for most of Thursday as crews extinguished the blaze and cleaned up. As well, Front Street was closed in both directions and Sixth Street was closed between Carnavon and Front streets.

The fire was fully extinguished by about 4 p.m. – 12 hours after it started – and Front Street was re-opened for rush hour.

An excavator was brought in to remove debris and unstable structures and clear a path for firefighters. A thick haze of smoke hung in the air for much of the day.

Investigators will conduct interviews to determine the cause of the fire, Mr. Armstrong said.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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