Christmas eve fire destroys historic barge

  • Dec. 31, 2008 6:00 a.m.

By Eric O’HigginsA bit of B.C. history went up in smoke Christmas Eve when the Kumdis River Lodge burned almost to the waterline at her tidal berth 80 metres out the dock from end of Port’s Industrial Road. Little remains but the distorted ‘hog chains’ on their burned out king posts spanning the hull – it’s hard to avoid using historical terms to describe a boat that would have been 83 years old this year. The hog chains were there to keep the ends of her 120 foot hull from drooping into a frown. She was commissioned in 1926 as the Sampson IV, a steam-powered sternwheeler for work as a snag puller on the Fraser River into the 1950s. She was converted by B.C. Packers as a buying scow with her paddle wheel removed to follow the fishing openings up and down the coast. Much of the steam power equipment remained on board however and other things added including a concrete floor for a fish hold. The concrete too is still there with much else left over from her chequered past. Doug Daugert, who worked in recent years to keep the rainwater from rotting her superstructure, recalls the concrete was poured over a collection of iron bedsprings to make about the strongest possible concrete. That will make cleaning up the wreckage difficult, as will the steel tanks and fittings that had been built into store rooms and other modifications over the years. The barge included at least three fire prevention systems from her days as fishing lodge at Langara Island mostly inoperative as she sat vacant for the winter. The halon system over the massive generator in the bow may well have operated, since that was the last area to burn, but the CO2 system for the kitchen line didn’t work. The storage cylinder about three metres from the stern ruptured in spectacular fashion, scattering burning wreckage over Port Clements firefighters manning hoses on the dock. The cylinder flew the length of the dock coming to rest beside the road and sending firefighters down there diving for cover. Those nearest the fire had no time to react, except to hose down the scattered burning wreckage. The sprinkler system over the crew accommodations would have failed when the electricity for the pumps burned out early in the blaze. The fire first involved the centre section where an oil heater was located. Doug Dougert said the furnace was working normally when he inspected it a couple of days before the fire. The bilges had been stuffed with plastic foam fore and aft in about 2002 to keep her fit for a last year of service as dining room and staff quarters out at Langara Island while a replacement steel barge was being readied. That was the end of her service that began there in 1983. At Kumdis River, her still charming spaces were only used for about four dinners a year, plus some crew quarters as needed. The plastic eventually caught and doomed efforts to fight the fire. When flames overcame the limited supply of water and began to lick at propane cylinders stored on deck, fire chief Craig Beachy pulled his crew back. In the event, the propane vented quietly although some of the tanks ruptured without exploding. Firefighters did manage to avoid losing a tankful of diesel stove oil into the Kumdis estuary which would have caused untold damage to those extensive wetlands. Little else remains on the supporting grid built years ago by Dave Unsworth. She still floated free on higher tides, held together by the remnants of massive clear Douglas fir stringers 30 metres long, two metres deep and almost 20cm thick. We’ll never see the like of those again, nor can the loss of 80 years of our history be replaced.

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