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Nelson to replace B.C.’s oldest working fire hall made famous by Roxanne

The 110-year-old facility no longer meets standards
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The newly built Nelson fire hall in 1913, with firefighting equipment powered by horses. Photo: Nelson Fire and Rescue

The oldest working fire hall in B.C. needs replacing.

Nelson city manager Kevin Cormack told council at a meeting Jan. 31 that the hall, which is known outside the city for being a central location in the 1987 movie Roxanne, is nearing the end of its life.

“Nelson’s current fire hall is 100 years old and built for horses,” said Cormack.

He said the city has hired a consultant to look at possible locations for a new fire hall.

Even with extensive renovations, he said, the current fire hall would not meet safety standards, and in any event the lot on which it is located is too small for current needs. He said he cannot speculate on the cost until he sees the consultant report.

Cormack said the consultant is an architect with experience in locating emergency sites in terms of both topography and emergency response times. He said this expertise is especially needed in a town with limited space and a steep landscape.

The consultant will report to council before the summer.

After it is replaced, the current building will be treated as a heritage building and another use found for it, Cormack said.

Nelson fire chief Jeff Hebert told the Nelson Star that a 2009 consultant report recommended that the city needed a new fire hall, and since then the need has only become greater.

“It cost $17,900 to build in 1913,” Hebert said. “I’m not sure what the dollar value is to replace it, but we’ve got our money’s worth out of it.”

The building has been renovated and enlarged several times since it was built, Hebert said, but has now reached its limit.

Building standards and codes

The 2009 report stated the roof needs replacing and doesn’t meet building code for snow load, Hebert said. The floor structure on the third floor also doesn’t meet code and shouldn’t be used for storage. Standards for exiting and accessing the building meanwhile don’t meet current requirements.

Nelson Fire Department truck and six firemen outside the firehall including fire chief Donald Guthrie, around 1920. Photo: Nelson Museum, Archives and Gallery
Nelson Fire Department truck and six firemen outside the firehall including fire chief Donald Guthrie, around 1920. Photo: Nelson Museum, Archives and Gallery

Hebert said all emergency service buildings should be built to “post-disaster standards,” meaning that in the event of an earthquake or flood, the building is still standing.

“This building doesn’t meet that,” he says. “It’s not even close. I mean, it’s got an un-reinforced rubble foundation, with brick.”

He said in an earthquake Nelson’s fire hall could be the first building to fall down.

The building also lacks the proper facilities for fire fighters to decontaminate after being exposed to burning hazardous materials.

“It’s not well laid out for health and wellness and cancer-risk reduction. Not only does that affect us, as firefighters, it also affects our families.”

Training and emergency management

There is a need for more office space in the fire hall, Hebert said, partly because of the department’s focus on emergency management, wildfire, fire inspections and public education – things that were not a concern in the early days of the fire hall.

Hebert is also Nelsons’ director of emergency management, and that two-person office is also in the fire hall, along with space for a seasonal FireSmart co-ordinator. This has meant converting storage space into office space.

Nelson’s fire chief Harry Sommerville (left) in 1986 with Nelson city councillor Sharon Heflin and the actor Steve Martin during the filming of the movie Roxanne. Photo: Steve Thornton/ Nelson Daily News
Nelson’s fire chief Harry Sommerville (left) in 1986 with Nelson city councillor Sharon Heflin and the actor Steve Martin during the filming of the movie Roxanne. Photo: Steve Thornton/ Nelson Daily News

Hebert says the fire hall lacks the space to do the various kinds of training required, including for roles they did not have in earlier years such as hazardous material response, confined space rescue and slope response.

The fire hall does not have room, outdoors or indoors, for such requirements as hose testing or pump testing.

“We can’t set our ladder truck up out in front of the hall without blocking the street off,” he says. “And we have overhead wires across the front of the fire station.”

The department will need replace its 30-year-old ladder truck in 2026 for insurance reasons, Hebert said, and it will be difficult to find one that will fit in the building.

The slope of Ward Street in front of the fire hall creates problems in the winter, Hebert said.

“Whenever we have icy conditions, we can’t get the fire trucks back in the fire hall without the front end sliding down the hill.”

The Nelson fire hall in 1957. Photo: Nelson Fire and Rescue
The Nelson fire hall in 1957. Photo: Nelson Fire and Rescue

Hebert says that firefighters have to come to the hall from their homes at a moment’s notice and often waste valuable time because the fire hall has almost no parking space.

“They have to park one or two blocks away and then run to the fire station, get in their gear and get in the truck. A fire can double every two minutes.”

Beginnings

According to the City of Nelson website, the first fire brigade was formed when an arsonist set fire to buildings in downtown Nelson in 1891.

The Deluge Hook and Ladder Company employed 16 active members who received an annual stipend of $18, while non-active members were paid $1 annually.

Nelson’s first fire hall was built in 1894 on the southeast corner of Josephine and Victoria streets. In 1912, city council approved the construction of the new fire hall for a contract price of $17,973.

By 1913 the new station was open, large enough for two teams of horses plus wagons or sleighs, depending on the time of year. The hall was also the residence of the fire chief and firefighters.

In 1987 the fire hall became famous because it was one of the main locations for the Hollywood movie Roxanne starring Steve Martin. For many years thereafter, tourists recalling the movie have visited the Nelson fire hall.

READ MORE

Horses, hoses, and history: the Nelson fire hall at 100

When Hollywood came to Nelson in 1986

Ten things you didn’t know about Nelson’s Fire Department

Nelson’s biggest blazes



bill.metcalfe@nelsonstar.com

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Bill Metcalfe

About the Author: Bill Metcalfe

I have lived in Nelson since 1994 and worked as a reporter at the Nelson Star since 2015.
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