Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How Fire has Shaped Alberta’s Main Streets

Amid leaping flames and clouds of smoke, Fort Saskatchewan lost its landmark Fort Hotel on the evening of January 18th, 2010. Situated in the city’s old commercial core, the hotel had provided lodging since 1914, and was a well-known watering hole in the small city north of Edmonton. Though tragic, fires have historically been a common occurrence in Alberta’s communities and were an influential factor in shaping the province’s Main Streets since the early 20th century.

In the early 1900s fledgling communities in Alberta were composed mostly of homes and businesses built using inexpensive wood frame construction. In commercial areas such as Main Streets, buildings were huddled together with shared walls, sometimes separated by alleyways cluttered with storage sheds, outhouses and debris. Local business owners and residents feared the hugely destructive fires these conditions regularly caused.

Communities took precautionary measures to guard against the possibility of fire by establishing fire regulation zones around Main Streets, controlling the use and storage of flammable materials, and requiring permits to burn trash. Builders were encouraged to include fire walls between buildings and to use non-flammable materials such as brick, stone, and later concrete block. Buildings constructed of these fire resistant materials provided higher rents to owners and spurred growth by giving communities an air of permanence, thus attracting more residents, commerce and industry. With the advent of municipal governments, local taxes could be raised to establish volunteer fire departments and municipal water systems, the legacies of which continue to serve their local communities today. Some residents opposed these precautions because they led to increased taxes, and because the fire-resistant buildings were more expensive to build. However, most people supported the measures because they limited the destructiveness of fires and lowered the cost of fire insurance.

Despite all of these measures, devastating fires still occurred regularly. This element’s destructive legacy has left its mark on almost every city, town, and village in Alberta. Particularly devastating fires occurred in Athabasca in 1913, claiming multiple buildings. Around that same time in Rockyford the south half of Main Street was reduced to ash. Almost an entire block was lost Olds in 1923, and a 1932 blaze in Peace River saw one third of downtown reduced to rubble.

Disastrous fires such as these enabled the construction of clusters of new buildings that helped to redefine their communities. Streetscapes of brick, stone and concrete block are common sights in Alberta’s towns and villages today, and few of the original wooden commercial buildings remain. Alberta’s scenic Main Streets are tangible representations of the community’s evolution. The recent fire that claimed the Fort Hotel, while regrettable, is a continuation of process.

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