Vancouver Centennial Plaque #7 – The Great Fire


1285 Homer St (Homer & Drake)


On the southeast corner of Electric Power Equipment Ltd





June 13, 1886

Fires, set to burn slash in this area, were fanned by sudden winds from the southwest. The flames spread quickly, reducing the dry, wooden buildings of Vancouver to ashes in less than an hour.”

Credit: Vancouver Centennial Commission, Historic Plaque Program – list and documentation plaques 1-49 (June 18, 1986). Courtesy of Vancouver Archives

Vancouver’s formative event. The city was incorporated in April 1886, but only two months later, it was practically wiped out by an intense, overwhelming fire. The Canadian Pacific Railway was using two fires to clear their land, which was normal procedure at the time, but unfortunately, there had been an unusually warm spell of weather, plus a stiff breeze off the Pacific. The fires grew out of control in the early afternoon and started to burn through the fallen trees around. Soon, the entire city was ablaze. People grabbed what they could and ran to the Burrard Inlet shore.

While there are some light-hearted stories about people going into hotels to drink the liquor that had been left behind, there are many horrific accounts of the wall of fire approaching. 21 people died, including those who hid in wells for safety, but suffocated when the fire sucked out all the oxygen. The survivors sought refuge in the water – some on handmade rafts, others were rescued by ships anchored nearby or by members of the Squamish nation who paddled across from the North Shore when they saw what was happening. The rescuers sang a paddle song to comfort the people on their canoes – the song is still part of Squamish oral traditions and is sung at ceremonies and funerals.

The fire wiped out almost every building of the fledgling city – the Hastings Mill Store is the only one that remains to this day (and we’ll be looking at it later!). Rebuilding started immediately, with the manager of the Hastings Mill offering free lumber to anyone who needed it. Starting from scratch meant that modern water, electricity and streetcar systems could be added to the “new” city.

And it’s another plaque that still exists! There’s also a Places That Matter plaque that commemorates the event. The intention is to have it in CRAB Park, but it’s just a virtual sign for now.

For another centennial curiosity, that’s also a fictionalized version of the fire, I recommend reading Matt & Jenny in Old Vancouver. It’s children’s book about a couple of kids from 1986 who somehow travel back in time to just before the Great Fire.

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