Lawrence Burns

Whereabouts was the farm?

It was, actually, at the end of Burns Road and that’s off Dove Creek Road. I would say it’s about seven miles through town and up here. At my dad’s 100th birthday, I made up a video from old pictures of his life. And I thought it would be interesting to find out exactly how many miles Grandma had to ride in a horse and buggy when she was pregnant, to go to the hospital in Cumberland. There was no hospital in Comox then. So Dad and I went out for a drive to the old farm – and it was 13.2 miles from the farm all the way in to Courtenay, up to the Cumberland hospital, 13.2 miles. And they used to do that once a week in their horse and buggy to sell their butter they had made, and the eggs from the chickens. No wonder dad didn’t want to take up farming!

Mr-Burns-9-copyThat’s where Grandpa’s farm was, DL154, and this is Cumberland, so they got in the old horse and buggy and came all the way in down through here. And that’s the school that Dad first went to, so he had to go all that distance through the bush. He’d leave in the morning and Grandma wouldn’t see him again until five o’clock at night, didn’t know whether he’d been eaten by a cougar or what. That was called Nikrap School. The man who gave the property was Parkin, and Nikrap was Parkin backwards.

In those days there was no Courtenay School District. If there were 10 students or more in a given area they could have a school. Comox Logging had a logging camp in that area so they built that school. Then the logging company moved that camp up the road to Camp Three, so that school closed. So Dad had no school to go to, and he was too young to turn loose because the next closest was the Sandwick school out past Vanier. So he missed a year or two, and then they bought him a pony and he rode the pony down to where the bridge goes over the Tsolum River. Anyway, he left the pony at my uncle’s farm, walked up the river to a swinging bridge, had a bike in the bush and rode the bike on a trail up to Sandwick school. Then he said he didn’t like school! It wasn’t his favourite pastime, he wanted to quit but Grandma said you had to get a job so he got a job in a garage. This is the garage that he had on 4th and Duncan.

Were you here during the big earthquake?

I was here! I was right about there, on a Sunday morning, June 23 I think it was, when the earthquake hit in 1946. We used to look after all the Vancouver Island Coach Lines buses and it was a Sunday morning, we didn’t open the garage on Sunday but we had to come down and gas them all up and clean them and sweep them – and I had just backed one of those buses in – I was only 17 then, so I didn’t have a driver’s license for driving buses, but I used to drive around on the private property, cause I kinda liked driving buses… but I backed it in and used to line them up so the bumpers were nice and neat and I just got it all done and shut the engine off. I almost pat myself on the back for doing a good job and then all of a sudden, whmp, whmp, WHMP, WHMP!! like that – and I thought I’d hit something and didn’t realize it. Then I could hear glass breaking on the stores, the windows and I ran out of the bus and I looked up Duncan Avenue, and chimneys were just falling like this and the whole of Duncan Avenue were just like on the water, on the ocean, little waves, it was just like that. Whew, I thought the end had come! And I thought this was all going to open up. Post office, which was just where the museum is now, the walls collapsed on it. It was scary. They said it was only 30 seconds but that was the longest 30 seconds I every felt. Our garage just got one window cracked, that was all. And in those days, it doesn’t show here, but we had the gas pumps which were not electric pumps. We hadn’t got electric pumps. So you used to pump gas up into, maybe you’ve seen pictures of them, ten gallons, and they were just waving backwards and forwards like that, like in the wind. Yeah, it was scary, but I was here then.

What was it like to be the fire captain?

That was exciting. It was challenging, very challenging. Courtenay was really starting to take off, as we say. I joined the fire department in 1950 when I was 21. You had to be 21 to join. That was as a volunteer, when I was working with my dad in the garage. I went into the garage business with my dad, after school. I could get away because my dad was the boss. We ran the ambulance service in those days, as well, before the government took it over.

Sometimes people ask me why did you join the fire department, and I say, “well, I guess, to be really honest, it was exciting”, every time the alarm went you knew something was happening. But I always like to say too that every time the alarm went, whether fire or ambulance, somebody was in trouble and we were going to help them. I was the chief from ’69 to ’96. I’d been deputy chief as a volunteer for about 8 years, and when I became Fire Chief I became a fully paid fireman, the first one in Courtenay. I always remember midnight on January 1, 1969, and I’m now the chief. It just felt like a load landed on top of me.

So, it was 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I couldn’t have done it without the wife I have because she was so good. I had two kids. The alarm goes and we were just leaving the house to go somewhere and I’d leave them on the sidewalk and away I’d go to the fire. They all came back home eventually. All that is part of being a fireman. She was so good. And the kids didn’t like it but they had to put up with it.

Funny little story – we had a baby, and of course you never leave the baby alone, but I was babysitting. I had an arrangement that if the fire alarm went, it was a siren in those days, my mum and dad knew I was bringing the baby there. So this one day the fire alarm went. My wife was downtown shopping, and so I picked up my baby and put it in the car and I went up 14th, across McPhee because dad and mum lived down McPhee. Dad had heard the siren and he was heading over here to get the baby, so I met him at Cumberland Road and passed the baby through the window and away I went to the fire.

Were you there for the Riverside Hotel fire?

Riverside-Hotel-FireI was. I was actually deputy chief at that time. The chief was out of town at that moment. It was at 8:02, I think, in the morning of January 1, 1968. I was at that fire and I was in charge at the moment until he arrived. That’s a big story. In brief, as firemen we are always trained: First, save life. Second, save exposure, that means everything else that isn’t burning. Then, put the fire out. When I arrived, I was there first before the truck arrived; it was burning, fire coming out everywhere. I didn’t realize it was as bad because of the smoke. The desk clerk came to me and I said how many people, “is everybody out?”. And he said no, everybody’s still in. It was burning so bad inside and up through the hotel that our firemen tried to go in but they couldn’t, so we had to rescue the people out through windows. And in the end, everybody was out. In fact, one more than what was on the list. We saved 27 and there were only 26 on the list. Somebody just visiting, I guess. We were able to save all the buildings around it, our Sid Williams Theatre that we have today was 8 inches away from the hotel. (shows pictures) You can see how we poured a lot of water. We called for Comox, Cumberland, Union Bay, for the fire departments we had an agreement with. So yes, I was at the Riverside. It was, I would say, the biggest fire that I had ever encountered.

Were there any other fires or ambulance rescues that were memorable to you?

Yes, yes, yes. We had another hotel fire which we were able to save two thirds of it. It was what we call the Washington Inn now. It was the Mexicana at that time. That was on December 7, 1979, and it was over a million dollars loss. It burned the convention areas, the office and everything like that, but stopped before it got to the three-storey part which is still there. I nearly lost my life in that, very close, crawling in with one of my captains to size up what we would try to stop it. Unbeknownst to us the roof, between the ceiling and the roof, was burning right across. It was up there, we knew, but we didn’t realize it was as bad. The air conditioning units all collapsed right there where the captain and I were, so if we had been about six inches further we might have been killed. That was a scary one.

One of the most challenging, we never actually had a fire, but a propane tanker truck rolled over and was leaking propane just about two miles south of Courtenay, down by the old Fraser Road. The tank was punctured, and so we had to evacuate everybody because if that propane went…. again, it was the whole community involved in the disaster plan and, fortunately, Oyster River Fire Chief of the day was there, Bill Carney, and he came down with a big wrecker and we got a crane and we lifted the tank truck up. You know, just a spark would have blown the whole thing up. I remember the headline in the Vancouver papers was “The Day Courtenay Nearly Blew Up” or something like that. We hit the headlines but thankfully no loss of life, no fire because we were able to keep it from burning. That was one of the biggest challenges.