At the R.C.M.P. detachment headquarters, the day shift was going out the door when the loudspeaker from the Fire Hall buzzed into action. Everyone froze as a voice announced the location of the fire at the High School, “and it’s a good one”.
What followed was orderly confusion, that of half-frozen firemen fighting a stubborn blaze that in minutes went out of control. The black, arid smoke attracted thousands to the flames despite the below zero temperatures. Following is an almost minute-by-minute log of the development of the fire and steps taken to get students back to their classes. The report was prepared by the Board of Trustees, School District No. 59, (Peace River South);
4:50 p.m. January 28, 1966: A teacher at South Peace Senior Secondary School, leaving her classroom, smelled smoke and turned on the fire alarm.
5:05 p.m. Somewhere in the Cariboo, a newly appointed Dawson Creek teacher en route to his job, heard on the radio that he might have no school to teach in. (Local residents heard the rumor unbelievingly). A small group of spectators, teachers and education officials stood watching a small column of smoke rising from the building.
5:20 p.m. The city knew the fire was out of control. Confined at first in a service tunnel, the flames ate their way into the top floor chemistry lab. Thus strengthened, they shot north past the starting point to flare up in the gym. Firemen battled not only the flames, but also freezing hoses and half frozen hands. Cafes and restaurants quickly mobilized to keep a steady supply of hot drinks on hand for the firefighters.
5:25 p.m. The deputy minister of education was informed and asked to assist by cutting red tape. The agenda of a meeting of the school board was quickly changed to a new and all-important topic — ‘finding accommodation.’
5:45 p.m. Board of management ordered a supply of plywood and 2 x 4’s after deciding that activity rooms and gymnasiums would have to be sub-divided, even if schools went on shift.
6:15 p.m. District superintendent visited Central Junior Secondary to arrange to take over a new wing, only to find the principal had plans already.
Saturday, January 29th: Plans for shifting of South Peace students to Central and Dawson Creek Elementary schools were established. All available sources were contacted to obtain desks, chairs, tables, etc. Maintenance crews were ordered to report. Radio bulletins were issued after it was learned that students were planning to transfer to Fort St. John, Prince George and other centres. Mr. Ballantyne, Principal of South Peace, assured the students over a special TV program that South Peace would be back in action on Monday,
Monday, January 31, 8 a.m. The principal of Devereaux School discovered one of his rooms missing. He had been away for the weekend and the room — a portable — had become part of South Peace.
9 a.m. Grade 12 and 13 classes were back in session. Comment of the week: “A school burns down and we don’t even get a day off”.
9:30 a.m. Textbook estimates were phoned to Victoria. Books were shipped the same day. Elementary classes at Dawson Creek Elementary School moved to new classrooms in activity rooms in that school and at Tremblay.
February 1st. At a service club luncheon, the district superintendent asked for help in replacing notes.
February 2nd. All South Peace students reported for assembly. Books were at school early Thursday morning.
Thursday, February 3rd. Books issued to pupils. New timetable finally pieced together. Classes started at noon.
Many times from teachers and pupils, was heard the comment, “I’m lost. Where is that class?”
The response, spearheaded by Imperial Oil, to the call for help to replace students’ notes, was overwhelming. School was forced to ask for delay while books were selected to be copied. Over 100,000 sheets of notes were typed, duplicated and issued, all by volunteers.
Board of school trustees decided to build for 1966 instead of replacing old buildings. Architects and educators started with concept of ‘flexible space’ and problem with auditorium was foreseen.
Board decided to find new site for the school, to eliminate crowding of land. Options were acquired after consultation with city council. Basically new concept of school design was presented to board of approval.
Trustees and officials placed new concept before the provincial government, who were enthusiastic, but skeptical of cost. The limit of $18 per square foot was set.
Board chairman and mayor met Minister of Education relative to the auditorium. Assurance was received that a fair share of the insurance could be used if total costs were within estimates.
Preparation of a $1,300.00 referendum, which subsequently passed by 82.4 percent.
On board of school trustees’ approval, tenders for new school were called.
Tenders showed building at surprisingly low cost of $15.85 per square foot. Despite September accommodation not being ready, 6,001 students were squeezed into the district schoolrooms.
The bus superintendent was called upon to arrange for a city bus system to transport classes from ‘home’ to school to temporary location for the year.
“While nothing can replace the personal possessions and memories lost in the South Peace fire, the catastrophe did give the district an opportunity to build for the future instead of patching up the past,” said Mr. J. L. Canty, District Superintendent of Schools.
“The board of school trustees seized that opportunity and as a result, a new and startlingly different building is today under construction in Dawson Creek, recognized as a ‘first’ in the province of B.C. Later this year, that building will become the new South Peace Senior Secondary School,” he concluded.