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

    February 28, 2022 |

    Hi Robert, I do remember some of those folks from my early years in Cold Lake (Hazel was my aunt and our family spent many fond times with Uncle Melvin, Aunt Hazel and Family. I knew Lawrence and Adrian. Having read a half dozen accounts it is clear their were many false narratives and, perhaps, a few truths along the way. I tried my best to provide an even account from what I read. Cheers, Harold. (email:

  • Robert Martineau

    February 25, 2022 |

    Its been a long time since any post here, but its worth a shot. My Grandfather was Hazel Wheelers brother Lawrence, and son to Maggie and Adrien. Maggie Martineau (nee Delaney) is my great grandmother. The books and articles to date are based on the white mans viewpoint and the real story as passed down by the Elders in my family is much more nefarious. Some of the white men were providing food for the Indians in exchange for sexual favors performed by the Squaws. Maggie was the product of one of those encounters. Although I am extremely proud of my family and family name, I am ashamed about this part of it.

  • Julue

    January 28, 2022 |

    Good morning Harold!
    Gosh darn it, you are such a good writer. I hope you have been writing a book about your life. It could be turned into a movie.
    Thanks for this edition to your blog.
    I pray that Canadians will keep their cool this weekend and next week in Ottawa. How do you see our PM handling it? He has to do something and quick!
    Xo Julie

  • Herb Craig

    December 14, 2021 |

    As always awesome job Harold. It seems whatever you do in life the end result is always the same professional, accurate, inclusive and entertaining. You have always been a class act and a great fellow policeman to work with. We had some awesome times together my friend. I will always hold you close as a true friend. Keep up the good work. Hope to see you this summer.
    Warm regards
    Herb Craig

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Hi Dorthy, So glad you found those stories and, yes, they hold many fond memories. Thanks to social media and the blog, I’ve been able to get in touch with many friends from back in the day. Cheers, Harold

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Well, well. Pleased to see your name pop up. I’m in regular contact via FB with many ‘kids’ from back in our HS days (Guy, Dawna, Shirley and others). Also, a lot of Cold Lake friends through FB. Cheers, Harold

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Oh, that is many years back and glad you found the story. I don’t have any recall of others in my class other than the Murphy sisters on whose farm my Dad and Mom worked.

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Pleased to hear from you Howie and trust all is going well. As with you, I have a couple of sad stories of times in my police career when I crossed paths with Ross Barrington Elworthy. Just haven’t had the time to write those stories.

  • Howie Siegel

    November 25, 2021 |

    My only fight at Pagliacci’s was a late Sunday night in 1980 (?) He ripped the towel machine off the bathroom wall which brought me running. He came after me, I grabbed a chair and cracked him on the head which split his skull and dropped him. I worried about the police finding him on the floor. I had just arrived from Lasqueti Island and wasn’t convinced the police were my friends. I dragged him out to Broad and Fort and left him on the sidewalk, called the cops. They picked him up and he never saw freedom again (as far as I know). I found out it was Ross Elworthy.

  • Herbert Plain

    November 24, 2021 |

    Just read you article on Pibroch excellent. My Dad was Searle Grain company agent we move there in 1942/3 live in town by the hall for 5 years than moved one mile east to the farm on the corner where the Pibroch road meets Hwy 44. Brother Don still lives there. I went to school with you and Louise.