Toronto Battles Demolition Area Fire
While a charge against the demolition contractor by the fire department awaited its day in court, the greatest fire in Toronto in 70 years swept spectacularly through a group of partly demolished buildings in the downtown area last May 9. Several buildings in three different city blocks were being razed and automatic sprinklers and other fire protection facilities were no longer serviceable when the fire struck.
Carried by gusting winds of 20 to 30 miles an hour, fist-sized embers rained among neighboring skyscrapers. The fire cleaned out three large, four-toeight-story warehouse and retail buildings while the Toronto Fire Department strove desperately to limit damage in neighboring and downwind buildings. An occupied 10-story building and a church were badly damaged while several other buildings suffered lesser exposure damage.
The fire department fought major battles to limit the damage in the 130year-old Holy Trinity Church, protect the newly opened $50 million Eaton Centre Department Store and shopping concourse, and the landmark Old City Hall. Destruction of an elevator penthouse and cooling tower on the roof of a 24-story bank building, six blocks distant, was the worst of several brandignited fires.
Three alarms, eight specials
Thirty-one of Toronto’s 52 fire companies were called to the fire on three regular alarms and eight special calls. Other companies fought several fires up to eight blocks downwind. Outside aid was available from five suburban borough fire departments, but it was not called.
Just east of New City Hall in the heart of Toronto’s downtown, an area of five city blocks has been under development by the Cadillac Fairview Corporation and Eaton Department Stores. The first phase of this $260-million project, known as the Toronto Eaton Centre, consists of a 29-story office building, a 10-level department store and 120 retail shops, lining each side of a huge glasscovered mall. This part of the project had been occupied for some three months.
The second phase, the demolition of a dozen old stores, warehouses and service buildings of Eaton’s to the south and west of the new center was in full progress when the fire occurred. A number of structures on the north had already disappeared. The buildings still to be demolished consisted of a number of structures, some joined together while others were separated by narrow alleys. Ranging in height from 3 to 10 stories, most had been built in the early 1900s.
Large area involved
They were mainly of brick construction with wooden floors and fully sprinklered. The total area of the buildings involved more than 1.5 million square feet. In the south end of the demolition project, where Eaton’s old main store occupying a whole city block was being demolished, the wrecker’s ball had a huge pile of combustible material several stories high waiting for removal. Because of the fire hazard to surrounding buildings should these materials become ignited and with sprinkler systems in the various buildings out of service, the fire prevention bureau of the Toronto Fire Department became concerned and issued a court summons against the wrecking firm. A hearing was pending when the bureau’s fears came true.
At 1:34 a.m. Monday, May 9, the Toronto Fire Department dispatchers received calls from a hotel resident a block away from the demolition site and the police department saying that a large fire could be seen inside the northernmost of the buildings under demolition. First-alarm apparatus consisting of Aerial 1, High Pressure 1 and Pumper 3 were on the scene in two minutes. The captain of the high pressure company radioed that they had a serious working fire and requested a second alarm.
This brought three more pumpers, two aerial towers, a rescue squad and Acting Chief Ben Bonser. The platoon chief in charge of the shift, who had been at another fire call, also responded at this time.
Meanwhile, the district chief from an adjoining district, covering the downtown call for the platoon chief, arrived on the scene and immediately requested a third alarm. This brought in three more pumpers and an additional aerial truck.
Fire jumps street
At this stage, the building at 40 Louisa Street where the fire originated was fully involved and flames were leaping hundreds of feet into the air. It had originally six stories. The building was now four, roofless and with windows removed but salvaged materials stacked inside. A strong north wind was carrying the fire 40 feet across narrow Louisa Street into the larger complex of buildings to the south. The first-alarm companies went to work on this exposure situation.
On the north side of the burning building some 80 feet distant, radiant heat ignited the old Holy Trinity Church. Heat apparently collected under the combustible eaves and entered the loft. The largely plate glass walls of the new Eaton Centre to the east were also being subjected to tremendous radiant heat at a similar distance.
First-in apparatus got their heavy streams working to try and stop the spread of fire to the south. The district chief directed the second-alarm apparatus to attack the fire in the church and to cool down the outside of Eaton Centre, where hundreds of panes of glass and thousands of glass blocks were already being shattered. Automatic sprinklers operated inside to assist in the stopping of fire spread there.
Bonser arrived on the scene and directed remaining apparatus in preventing the spread of flames southward and eastward. During the next two hours, nine more pumpers, seven more aerials, the reserve high pressure truck and the second rescue squad were brought to the scene and strategically located to attack the fire, which by this time was covering a huge area. The fire in the church was located in the loft, between the ceiling and slate roof. Fought under District Chief Holman, this was a difficult battle due to access problems and resulted in severe damage to the ceiling.
In acting command of the department during the retirement leave of Chief Charles Chambers, Bonser first hoped to stop the inferno’s southward sweep at the 10-story building known as Eaton’s Annex, but with a multitude of openings caused by demolition, the wind swept the fire horizontally into the building on numerous floors. From here there was open communication to an adjoining five-story structure that only months before had operated as Eaton’s Budget Store.
The fire was blowing through the old buildings with a force apparently much in excess of the official wind velocities as thermal drafts appeared to add to the winds.
Fire fighters made their principal stand on Albert Street as flames raced through this tinder-dry structure in a westerly direction. Bonser set up several commands covering the exposure fronts, and he concentrated on the Albert Street side where Old City Hall was directly in front of the fire’s advance. Radio communication between areas was good and the dispatch center served as communications link.
Tons of water were poured on the fully involved buildings from hand lines and turrets. Both fixed and portable turrets operating from the tops of aerial equipment, the decks of high pressure wagons and the ground provided a heavy Water curtain in Albert Street, but the flames continued their advance. Spot fires broke out in the huge heap of rubble alongside the partially demolished old main store.
Held on the south, the fire worked westward and eventually jumped a 10foot alley to enter the windows of the 12-story City Hall Annex. This was occupied by the architectural division of Ryerson Polytechnical College. Anticipating this development, fire fighters using inside standpipe hose lines managed to control this front on the third to seventh floors in the east half of the building. However, collapse of the adjoining building’s roof caused a burst of fire into the eight, ninth and tenth floors, quickly pushing right through to the opposite Bay Street side. Aerial ladder streams quickly knocked down this involvement and fire in this building then was rapidly controlled.
Old City Hall protected
In the meantime, Old City Hall on the south side of Albert Street was being seriously threatened by the main front of the fire and the constant shower of burning embers. It was feared for a time that this architecturally impressive and historically important building might also fall victim to the flames. Its main use is for police court and police officers were marshaled tp to remove court records during the height of the fire.
Fire fighters were driven out of Albert Street to operate from the two ends of the block. With the help of hose streams played on the copper roof and thick sandstone walls, the Old City Hall was saved. Only minimal damage was caused by minor fires caused by radiant heat and burning embers that fire fighters extinguished in the attic area and clock tower. An attic sprinkler system operated to assist on one of these fires. The stops at this building and the City Hall Annex marked the turning point in the battle and the fire’s progress was considered halted about 4:30 a.m.
Up to this time, a very real exposure hazard existed through the concentrated high-rise business district with the winds gusting strongly. The wind combined with the thermal updraft of the intense fire to carry sparks and embers high over the area until they dropped on roofs of many downtown buildings far south of the fire. Five blocks away, embers landing on the roof of the 27-story Bank of Nova Scotia at King and Bay Streets started a serious fire in the elevator penthouse and cooling tower.
High-rise fire extinguished
The district chief in charge of the bank fire served also as a useful spotter for other small fires in and among the high-rise buildings in the area. Two pumpers and an aerial were dispatched and their crews managed to extinguish this fire, which caused an estimated $50,000 damage. By this time, companies in service were scattered rather thinly to cover the city for other fires.
Four more separate fires on the roofs of other buildings and flying brand calls up to eight blocks away resulted in additional apparatus being sent into the area. Up to nine companies were out on these at their worst around 4 a.m. Fortunately these were discovered early and extinguished with a minimum of damage. Private security personnel were also in action on some roofs.
By dawn the flames began to subside as the 136 fire fighters at the scene continued to apply streams on the smoldering ruins that to the arriving office workers looked like the aftermath of a bombing raid.
The day shift came on and stayed most of the day, with some crews picking up late in the afternoon. At 5:49 p.m. Tuesday, the box was struck out. Overhauling continued on the site for some time after. Early estimates of the total loss were set around $1.5 million. No estimate was made on the buildings that were totally destroyed as they were under demolition at the time.
Of particular value to the fire fighters was the downtown high pressure system, which provided ample water to satisfy the department’s demand. Both direct high pressure system streams at 250-psi station pressure and pumper-supplied streams from the domestic system were used. At the height of the fire, there were 15 aerial and ground heavy streams, as well as 18 hand lines and standpipe lines in use. Fire investigators of the Ontario Fire Marshal’s Office encountered extreme difficulty due to the completeness of destruction in the building of origin. An incendiary cause appeared likely. In numbers of men and equipment required and the area destroyed, this fire was the largest in Toronto since the conflagration of 1904, which devastated 14 acres in the heart of the city’s mercantile district and prompted the construction of the high pressure system.
The morning after the fire, Ben Bonser was due to be confirmed as chief of department by the city council. There was no opposition. Tighter control will now be secured over demolition work with regard to accumulations of combustible debris and the continuance of fire protection systems in a manner similar to building construction requirements.
This article was written for Fire Engineering at the request of the Toronto Fire Department. The author, Donal Baird, is a fire protection engineer and a long-time contributor to our pages. All photos are Toronto Fire Department photos by Lorne Waywell.