Red Sky Over Nelson: A History of Nelson on Fire

“The fire raged on and the flames leapt ever higher into the night sky, drawing the largest crowd that had ever witnessed a blaze in the city. Rushing from their beds and onto the street in the scantiest of light attire, some of the women from nearby residences were terror stricken and a few were hysterical.”

The Nelson Fire Department is rich in history and tradition. The stories and photos captured in this amazing website by Richard Rowberry and Avia Moore depict some of the most incredible tales of bravery by the men and women of the Nelson Fire Department and the strength of the citizens that endured the ravages of fire over the past 124 years.

As the Chief for the past 7 years and a member of the department for 38 years, I have been honoured to be part of the history and tradition of the Nelson Fire Services. When I began my career with the firefighters that were hired in the 50’s and 60’s, they told us of many fires both tragic and dangerous and the equipment they used to fight the fires. Many of these stories and articles are displayed in our museum at the fire station today. They also spoke of the history from the turn of the century which were passed on by the generations of firefighters that were teamsters and firefighters in the late 1800 and early 1900. They spoke of the their teams of horses that stood on guard in the 2 fire stations; one on Victoria and one on Innes St. and then lastly at the present fire station on Ward Street. I still remember many a night shift and while on my night watch, I would walk between the trucks and reminisce of years gone by. I could almost smell the horses and hear their heavy breathing as the alarm bells sound out a box alarm. What a life to be a firefighter in those years gone by. Back to reality today we have highly training firefighters using new technology both in personal protective equipment and our fire trucks. The history of our department created the traditions of yesterday  that molded the future of today. Every new firefighter creates the history that builds tomorrow. After 38 years I am pleased to welcome our new Fire Chief Len MacCharles who now, under his watch, will guide our Fire Department into the future filled with the tradition and stories of my years gone by. Stay Safe

Fire Chief Simon Grypma (Chief from 2007 – 2014)

The Story of the Nelson Fire Bug: Part 1

PART ONE: 1911 The greatest danger facing any pioneer community in the BC interior was fire. In the twenty years since its beginnings as a mining camp in 1890, Nelson had escaped the fate of several other Kootenay towns. – Sandon in 1900 and Rossland in 1902, both severely damaged by fires. Hardest hit was […]

A History of the Fire Department

The Formation of a Bang Up Fire Company The chances of a British Columbia mining camp turning into a full grown city during the last decade of the 19th century were comparable to those of a tadpole becoming a frog. There was fierce competition to snag the regional railway terminus and all the trade that […]

The Story of the Nelson Fire Bug: Part 2

PART TWO: 1912 No new fires – always excepting the usual chimney fires and stray cigar butts. No new fires in January, February, and well into March. It seemed Mr. Bradshaw was innocent – or maybe he was just trying to quit. March 11, 1912 FIRE BUG IN WINNIPEG CAUSES DEATH OF SEVEN Now was […]

At Home in the Fire Hall

Until 1973, the chief’s family lived in the hall. In a memoir, Shirley Hanic (nee McDonald) of Burnaby whose father Gordon was chief from 1939 to 1954, recalled her bedroom was “the little one at the top of the building by the bell tower. It was blistering hot in the summer and I grew radishes […]

Hollywood Comes Calling

The renovations on the firehall paid unexpected dividends when Hollywood came calling in 1986. The fire hall was a primary set for Roxanne — which cast Steve Martin as Nelson, Wash. fire chief C.D. Bales — and one of the key reasons the movie was filmed here. “They were looking for an older fire hall […]

a 1903 house fire at the corner of Stanley and Mill looking east. The black horse on the right is a fire horse. The one pulling the bakery wagon may be a retired fire horse who couldn’t resist answering the call. Courtesy of The BC Archives.

Major Fires in Nelson: Before 1950

April 7, 1892 The first fire: Carney and Barrett’s store. Destroyed. Loss estimated at $7,000 to $8,000. Read about it in The Miner. Jan. 19, 1894 International Hotel. Destroyed. This fire resulted in public pressure that led to improvements to the city’s volunteer fire department, the purchase of new equipment, and ultimately construction of the […]

Major Fires in Nelson: 1950 to the present

Dates in bold italics were fires lit by arsonists June 6, 1952 Nelson Farmer’s Supply office and warehouse, Palm Dairies warehouse, and coal bunker of Towler Fuel and Transfer, Railway St. Damage $100,000 and loss of 80 tons of grain, flour, cereal, and dairy. Sept. 2, 1952 Nelson Sash and Door Works, 907 Front Street. […]

Chief Guthrie

The following was first published in Route 3, Summer 2014. Hail to the (fire) chief Donald Guthrie left his mark as a firefighter on Nelson and Rossland By Greg Nesteroff Donald Guthrie’s name isn’t well known today in Rossland or Nelson, but it should be. As fire chief in both cities, he was at the […]


Red Sky Over Nelson was sponsored by The Nelson History Theatre Society and was created by Avia Moore (design and construction) and Richard Rowberry (research and content). Additional material was contributed by Greg Nesteroff from articles originally appearing in The Nelson Star, Touchstones Nelson Museum of Art and History Archives (Archivist Laura Fortier), and Nelson […]