Fire Walkers – Disaster Strikes – Chapter 5 of 6

Written by Harold McNeill on March 3rd, 2011. Posted in Fire Department

Fire Walkers – Disaster Strikes – Chapter 5

Flying at 5000 feet, fifty miles northwest of Cold Lake it was now evident the cloud of heavy black smoke that was building to several thousand feet was coming from the base.  As per normal procedure I made radio contact with the tower, advised of my location and intention to pass by the north side of the base control zone and also requested they close my flight plan.  Having received confirmation I then advised I was a fireman at the SAC Base and inquired as to the source of the smoke.  The tower advised there had been a major explosion at the SAC Site and all available firemen were being called to duty.  The tower advised the base was closed to all air traffic until further notice.

As I passed by the control zone about 14 miles north, it was evident the pall of smoke was rising from the large composite building that housed most of the infrastructure at the SAC base. This included our Fire Department complex in the north-west corner.

After landing and securing the airplane at the main dock in Cold Lake, I jumped in my car and headed to the base.  On arrival I reported in to a temporary HQ in a hanger about 200 yards south of the Fire Hall and learned that all but about five of the off-duty men had already reported for duty. In a short brief by one of the George Grimstead, one of the Crew Chiefs, I learned a major explosion had occurred in a repair area in the southeast corner of the building. The cause was, as yet, unknown.

The composite building covered about 350,000 square feet, was a single story with 12 -18 foot ceilings and a tar and gravel roof.  The fire was currently contained to about 20,000 square feet but a major problem was gaining access.  Volatile liquids were stored in the area and it was expected the fire would soon be further fuelled as those liquids became overheated and exploded.

At present all the crews were able to do was pour water in through a few open doors and broken windows on the south side of the building. Although the building had firewalls between major sections, it was uncertain what would happen if the steel girders holding the tar and gravel composite roof began to cave as a result of the intense heat. The fire had now been raging for over six hours and was now out of control in about 40,000 square feet.

About 6:00 pm there was another major setback. The SAC base was served by a single water main from the main base and as more fire trucks were added, the water pressure suddenly dropped. It was clear the draw was greater than the capacity of the system so two trucks had to be taken off line. They could only join the fight when supplied with water from tank trucks that were now making steady trips to the main base to fill from hydrants about three miles distant.

At somewhere around 6:00 pm steel girders in the main fire area began to collapse. The wooden bean supported, tar and gravel roof caved in over about 40,000 square feet.  It was now totally impossible to gain access to the fire area and it was being further feed by melted tar.  This caused a chain reaction and knocked down several firewalls.  It was extremely fortunate none of our crew had been in the area’s immediately adjacent to these collapsing walls and roof or they would surely have been killed outright or trapped with no way to escape.  Due credit was to be given to the Fire Chief and Crew Chiefs for having decided to withdraw the teams.

At one point the team to which I had been assigned was fighting to stop the fire from invading an area that stored a 5,000 gallon fuel tank that supplied the emergency generators for the base.  We had managed to keep the fire a bay for some time but eventually extreme heat next to the storage tank cause the fuel to boil and vent.  It was when the vent began to spout flames that we were withdrawn.  It was only a few hours later the tank burst and spread superheated diesel fuel over a wide area not more than 100 feet from the Fire Hall.

Over the night and into the next day a constant string of explosions rocked the base as the fire invaded new areas and more of the roof began to collapse. It was clear the fight was lost and resources were directed toward containing the fire to the main building. While there was a 500,000 gallon JP4 fuel tank on the base and both the hanger and the main crew buildings were set back nearly two hundreds, none were in jeopardy.

By the time the fire had burned out there was very little left of the building other than the walls of the fire station.  Everything within the station had been burned.  It was shocking to walk back into our fire station and see the devastation. Our lockers were blackened and bent pieces of metal and the contents had been reduced to small, charred balls. The only thing we had saved was the gear we were wearing and our fire trucks.

Temporary Quarters

Over the next week everything was in a state of flux. Chief Valley secured a section of the SAC hanger and we set up temporary HQ. Additional equipment needed was secured from the RCAF and ten days later we were back in normal operation with roped off areas for the trucks, office space, lockers and kitchen. We even managed to score enough bunks to set up open space dorm.

In a follow-up investigation by the USAF and RCAF it was learned the fire had been caused when workers had been applying varnish to a large storage area in the main complex and had not properly vented the area. Fumes from the varnish eventually created and explosive mixture and a spark from some source (some suggested a ringing phone) caused a massive explosion. The entire area was engulfed in flame and there was sufficient source of fuel and oxygen in the area to keep it burning.  It was fortunate no workers were in the area when the explosion occurred or they would most certainly have been killed.

A few humorous situations occurred while at the base.  Being a hanger there were large block and tackles attached to the hanger roof (some 100 above our quarters).  One night one of the crew members who was a particularly sound sleeper was snoring away in his usual fashion so the others decided to tie him securely in his bed.  Once firmly secured they hooked his bed to the block and tackle, turned it sideways 45 degrees and hoisted him 50 feet above the hanger floor at an angle that left him look down.

Our comrade never blinked an eye nor missed a snore as he was hoisted toward the heavens.  The alarm room then sounded the klaxon and he woke with a start. The rest is history. When lowered he was not a happy camper but did see the humour in the situation.  It was fitting retribution for that particular member as he was always playing practical jokes on others.

The Future

Our future was uncertain. Whether the USAF would choose to rebuild and keep the operation was a question that was often discussed over the coming weeks. In early June, 1963, the answer came.  The bad news, the base would be closed and all tankers would be transferred to other locations.  The good news, all firemen would be offered jobs in other locations. The locations included:

SAC Base at the RCAF Station in Namao (just outside Edmonton)
Edmonton International Airport at Niskew
Vancouver International Airport
Kelowna International Airport
Winnipeg International Airport
SAC Base in Churchill Manitoba
Dockyard Fire Department in Victoria operating out of five stations (Dockyard, Naden, Victoria International Airport, Belmont Park and Peddar Bay).

By mid-August many of the men from the SAC base in Cold Lake were on the move. A number had decided to leave the service and stay in Cold Lake to take up other careers.   Only two men, Morris Hill, a high school chum and I, selected Victoria.  We had been encouraged to move the Vancouver Island by Morris’s older brother, Eldon Hill, who was then serving as an RCMP Officer in Nanaimo, BC.

Several other friends moved to the Vancouver International at Sea Island. This included Del Curtis, husband of my cousin Betty Curtis (Dewan), and school friends Jimmy and Billy Martineau and others friends from Cold Lake, Henry Hoolihan, Ken and Les Eshelmen, Roy MacDonald and Art Axani.

In doing research for this series, I was surprised to learn there were no references to the USAF SAC operations at Cold Lake, Namao and Churchill other than a couple of line.  It was an interesting part of the history of Cold Lake that will hopefully be preserved in the archives.

In speaking to my cousin Betty Monroe (Curtis (Dewan), she provided neat epitaph:

“You came, you built it and then you burned it down.”

Harold McNeill
March, 2011


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  • Harold McNeill

    August 16, 2019 |

    Many thanks for reviewing the article Elizabeth. There are so many areas of our society in which populism carries the day, although I think what is happening with the ICBC is that groups having a vested interest in private insurance would dearly love to dislodge ICBC from their preferred position. That being said, I think was a good move to have only portions of the insurance coverage in BC being held by ICBC and other portions being made available through private enterprise.

  • Elizabeth Mary McInnes, CAIB

    August 15, 2019 |

    It’s a breath of fresh air to see a resident of British Columbia look to review all the facts over believing what is reported in the news or just following along with the negative stigma of the masses. Your article truly showcases that with a little reform to ICBC’s provincial system – British Columbia could be a true leader for other provinces in Canada. Very well written article!

  • Harold McNeill

    August 13, 2019 |

    August 13, 2019. The Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC), a private enterprise group not unlike the Fraser Institute, is again on the campaign trail. They state ICBC rates are the highest in Canada, but, thankfully, Global BC inserted a section indicating the Insurance Bureau cherry-picked the highest number in BC and the lowest numbers in AB, ON and other Eastern Provinces. If you take a few minutes to check reliable sources you will find BC rates, are the lowest in Canada.

  • Andrew Dunn

    May 14, 2019 |

    Thank you so much for all your help thus far Harold, aka. Tractor guy! I could not have done without you!

  • Harold McNeill

    April 25, 2019 |

    I find it interesting to contemplate how a small community evolves in general isolation from the rest of the world. We have a similar situation in the northern communities in Canada to which access is limited. The inclusion of the world wide web and mass media has changed things, but these communities are still left pretty much to their own devices when it comes to personal interaction.

  • Harold McNeill

    March 19, 2019 |

    Hi Dave. Not that I am aware and I have a fairly comprehensive family tree for the McNeill side of the family. I will pull it up and scan. Cheers, Harold. Great chatting with you and I will give Ben a nudge.

  • Dave Cassels

    March 16, 2019 |

    Were you related to Guy McNeill who owned the Bruin Inn in St. Albert in the late 40’s or early 50’s? Guy was a close friend of my father-in-law who was the first President of the Royal Glenora Club. My phone number is 780 940 1175. Thank you.

  • Harold McNeill

    March 15, 2019 |

    So glad you found the story and enjoyed. Indeed, they were memorable times. I did a fair amount of searching but never managed to contact any of the Murffit kids. However, it was neat to make contact with the Colony and someone I knew from back in the day. I have enjoyed writing these stories from back in the 1940s and 50s and have made contact with a lot of friends from those early years. I will give you a call over the weekend. Cheers, Harold

  • Yvonne (Couture) Richardson

    March 7, 2019 |

    I enjoyed your story. I too, lived in Pibroch in 1951, as my parents owned the hotel there. I was a very close friend of Bonnie Murfitt at the time. I moved to Edmonton in 1952, however, and have not seen her since. I would like to be in touch with you to talk about your story. My email is listed above and my phone number is 780-475-3873.

  • Laureen Kosch/Patry

    March 5, 2019 |

    I grew up in Pibroch and would not trade those years for anything. “ Kids don’t know how to play anymore” Never was a truer statement made. During the summer we were out the door by 8am, home for lunch, and back when it got dark. For the most part our only toys were our bikes and maybe a baseball mitt. I will never forget the times when all the kids got together in “Finks field” for a game of scrub baseball. Everybody was welcome, kids from 8 to 18. I didn’t know it then but I guess I had a childhood most dream of. Drove thru town last summer. It all looked a lot smaller.