Thinking I do with words - Reflecting on the fires of the past

Listening to Frank Korvemaker talk about preserving historic sites, I was struck by something interesting. Of hundreds of flour mills built over the centuries, most are gone because they started on fire.

Yorkton’s still stands, and while it had a competitive advantage from being built out of brick – which is less prone to fire than wood – it’s not like it was not filled with the same flammable material as all of the other flour mills out there. Yet it has managed to avoid the flames for a century, and is now both the oldest and the only brick mill in the province.

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What’s more interesting is that it’s really not like Yorkton didn’t have its share of fires over the years. Look in the earlier archives here at Yorkton This Week and it won’t take very long before you find a fire or two wiping out landmarks and businesses. Grocery stores, warehouses and, most famously, hotels, were all claimed by the flames. In some cases, one wonders if the great mysteries of Yorkton – did tunnels ever exist in the downtown – would have been easily solved if certain hotels in town didn’t burn down.

It’s an interesting question what this city would look like without these fires over the years to change the makeup of the town itself. It’s interesting to think about what the province as a whole would look like if all of these fires didn’t take place.

Fire is still shaping the city, whether it’s taking out buildings that are highly valued or ones that people have wanted to get rid of for years. The difference is now that after years of buildings starting ablaze, we have learned a few things.

Materials are different, technology is different, fire-fighting technique is different. If today’s fire department met the same fire that they had in 1940, they would likely have a bit less damage at the end. But they won’t because nobody is going to build a building like that anymore, they simply are not allowed.

It’s interesting to see historic photos of any Saskatchewan cities and look at the buildings that didn’t make it. In many cases, it was fire that explains why main street looked very different in the past century.

And yet, while Yorkton was on fire as much as any town in the 20th century, the most flammable building of all - the flour mill - managed to get through it intact. Sure, it had years of neglect in the meantime, but it’s still standing, and is going to become part of something else as the project continues into the future.

I’m not going to suggest that the mill was saved through divine providence, it was saved at least partially due to luck. But because of the luck, now the city has something nobody else does. Fire destroyed a lot, but it accidentally created an opportunity for the city. And now we’re embracing it.

Let’s just keep the fire at bay in the future.

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