NaBloPoMo – Day 13 – Pier Park

I saw this story in the newspaper yesterday and it reminded me that I wanted to blog about the fire that burned down half of Pier Park in September.

Pier Park in September
Image credit: Dennis Sylvester Hurd, posted on Flickr, public domain.

Pier Park is a boardwalk in New Westminster, just a few blocks from my place, which opened in 2012, just before I moved here. The easternmost portion of it was built onto an old timber wharf and the westernmost portion was a newer build. I remember when I first moved here, my friend Patrice, who had moved to New West a few year prior, took me to Pier Park to show it off to me. At the time, it was a boardwalk with some features (like benches and chairs and plants, and I think the play structure for kids was there, and I think the concession stand was there, but not yet operational). Over the years, more things were added – they built an “urban beach” with volleyball courts, put up these cool hammocks made out of old fire truck hoses, a little spray park thing for kids (which I also appreciated when I was a runner, as I used to run there in the summer and would run through the spray park part to cool down). The concession stand eventually opened so you could buy an ice cream cone or a hot dog.

At some point, the big W was added. It was a piece of public art that was a giant W made out of shipping containers. Officially it was called “WOW Westminster”, but most people just called it the W. It was controversial, as art often is, with some people loving it and other people hating it. I kinda loved it.

The big W at Pier Park in New Westminster
I took this photo of the big W in 2018

I love to be near water and so it was a delight to me to have this boardwalk, along with the New Westminster Quay (another boardwalk that is just a bit east of Pier Park), as a place to go for walks and runs.

Image credit: Dennis Sylvester Hurd, posted on Flickr, public domain.

When I used to be a runner, my go to for a quick 5 km was to run all the way along Pier Park and back, and then all the way along the Quay and back. To make it a full 5 km, I had to run along the little bits of the Pier’s boardwalk that jutted out (if I didn’t, it was only 4 point something kilometers).

Pier Park was where I was running when I got the sprained ankle that eventually ended my running career. I was training for the Scotiabank Half Marathon and it was raining hard that day – I was running through the far east part of Pier Park, where the big W was – and stepped in a giant puddle that turned out to be concealing a giant pot hole and – boom – sprained ankle.

Pier Park in September
Image credit: Dennis Sylvester Hurd, posted on Flickr, public domain.

During the pandemic, going for walks has been an important part of maintaining my mental and physical health. I used to get a lot of walking in my day because I took transit to work, which meant walking to and from the Skytrain stations was just embedded into my day. Then all of the sudden, I was working from home and when you live in a tiny condo, that means doing less than 1,000 steps a day, unless you make a point of going outside and walking just for the sake of walking. And being in a tiny condo without ever leaving is not great for one’s mental health either – getting out, getting moving, and being near the river helps keep me sane. And I know I’m not alone in this – my whole neighbourhood is full of condos and for those of us who live here, Pier Park was our backyard.

New West's Newest Addition
Image credit: Dennis Sylvester Hurd, posted on Flickr, public domain.

Until recently, the Quay and Pier Park were separated by an empty parking lot, but a development company started construction on what will eventually become two giant condo towers, which will be surrounded by open green space that will make a seamless connection between the Quay and Pier Park. Since this construction site was going to block one of the two entrances to Pier Park, the city made the developer build an overpass at 6th Street that would allow people to second way to access Pier Park. That opened in late July and I quite enjoyed walking over it only my daily walks. The part where it crosses over the railway track was kinda scary for me the first time I walked over it (what with my fear of heights and all), but I was using it as a way to regularly expose myself to that fear to help make me less afraid.

On September 12, when Kalev came out to New West so we could go for a socially distanced walk (because that is how one can socialize in a pandemic), I was like “You have to come and see the new overpass!” and I distinctly reminded myself of my friend Patrice when she introduced me to Pier Park all those years ago. We walked over the overpass. We walked the length of the park to the big W. Then we walked back and walked back over the overpass. We talked about the horrible wildfire smoke that was coming up from the western United States.

The next night, I looked out of my living room window to see this:

Pier Park on fire, New Westminster, BC

And that was how I learned that Pier Park was on fire. I spend the rest of the night looking out my window, seeing the red glow and the black smoke getting bigger and bigger, and reading the tweets of my fellow New Westies, watching the city’s heart break in real time.

The wildfire smoke was already pretty horrible and this made it a thousand times worse. The smoke was so thick that night that people watching were unsure if the big W was still there or if it had fallen. Someone set up a live stream (I assume from one of the condos that was facing the park) and eventually it could be seen that it was still be there, but in the end there was too much damage for it to be kept and so it was taken down and taken away, along with so much other debris.

Firefighters came in from surrounding cities to help fight the blaze, including a fire boat from Vancouver. The way the Park is located made it particularly difficult to fight – there’s a river on one side and a railway on the other side. The fire was too intense to have anyone actually be on the pier itself, so they had to shoot water at it from the other side of the railway and from the fire boat on the river.

It turned out that the fire was burning underneath the pier – the old creosote-treated pilings that held it up were on fire, but couldn’t be reached directly because there was the asphalt surface on top. They ultimately had to remove all of that, very slowly, in pieces, and it was 11 days before the fire was fully extinguished.

I didn’t even know what creosote was before that night1, so for the uninitiated it’s a tar-like substance that is used to treat wood that’s going to be in water to prevent it from rotting. Translation: a great fuel source for a fire and toxic as all get out when in smoke. Despite having all the windows closed and two air purifiers running at full blast, I had a headache for a week.

Here’s a photo I took six days later, from a view point on Columbia Street, looking down on the wreckage:

Aftermath of the New Westminster Pier Park fire

When you zoom in, you can see there is still smoke coming up from the fire that continued to smolder underneath:

Aftermath of the New Westminster Pier Park fire

In the end, they were able to protect the eastern half (the newer part) of the park, but the western half (the part on the old timber wharf) was completely unsalvageable. And access to the newer part of the park has been blocked since then – the news story I mentioned at the start of this blog posting was telling us that they expect we won’t be able to access it until February 2021, as they still have work to do to clean up the site and make it safe. On my walks, I occasionally walk up Columbia Street to go by the 6th Street overpass to see if it’s open yet. I guess I don’t need to do that now until the new year.

Mayor Beth at New Westminter Pier Park
Along the boardwalk at Pier Park is this strip of metal with the names of people and things from New Westminster history. Mayor Beth Wood was the first woman elected to New West City Council and the first female mayor in the city. Here I am, suggesting that maybe there could be another Mayor Beth again someday 😉
  1. Chalk that up as a new thing I learned this year towards my 2020 goal of learning 20 new things! []

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