Historic Lorne Hotel in Comox burns early Monday morning
One hundred and thirty-three years of Comox Valley history was reduced to rubble Monday morning.
The Lorne Hotel — reportedly the community's first hotel and the oldest licensed drinking establishment in the province — burned to the ground in an early-morning fire. All that remained of the distinctive white and blue heritage building by about 9:30 a.m. was part of one of the white pillars, part of a stairway and a pile of twisted wood and metal. The yellow and blue sign that hung on the corner of the building lay amid the rubble as firefighters sprayed water on the still-smoking debris.
No one was hurt, and firefighters are still investigating the cause of the fire.
Jim Lariviere, assistant chief of the Comox Fire Department, was the first on the scene at about 2:30 a.m.
“It was a bit of a stubborn fire,” he said.
When he arrived at the corner of Port Augusta Street and Comox Avenue, there was a lot of smoke and flames at the back of the building, he explained.
Soon, 30 firefighters were fighting the blaze, and there were three major vehicles, as well as ancillary vehicles, explained Lariviere, noting the Courtenay Fire Department was also called in for mutual aid.
The firefighters started to attack the interior of the Lorne, but they had to start an outside attack when conditions deteriorated inside, according to Lariviere.
Lariviere was surprised by how fast the fire spread.
“I believe that’s due to the construction of the building; it’s over 100 years old,” he said.
There were no sprinklers, but the building did have a fire alarm system, according to Lariviere.
The Lorne Hotel was a real family business for George Kacavenda and his wife and three children. Kacavenda bought the pub in 1996.
"I bought it in the interest of I always thought that was something I was interested in doing, being in the hospitality business," he said. "It ended up being a family business. The kids were young when I bought it, but eventually, all the kids worked there.
"It's just been a great place. There's been a lot of great people I met here."
"It's meant a lot to me," he added. "I met so many good people here. It's been hard work, and it's been a lot of things, and there's been a lot of pluses that came out of it."
Kacavenda had many longtime employees who helped create such a comfortable atmosphere — including one who has been at the pub for 18 years and two or three who worked there more than 12 years.
"They're devastated," he said. "They're really upset for every reason, their own financial reasons, but also they don't know."
Many people shared their memories of the Lorne with Kacavenda on Monday as they watched the scene. He heard many great stories and even met people whose grandparents were born in the building.
"It was a very sad day yesterday," he said. "A lot of people told me it felt like a funeral yesterday. Everybody's sad for everybody. They know me and my family, and they're sad for me, and they're sad for the building because there are so many memories."
Kacavenda would like to rebuild, but he doesn't know yet if that is one of his options.
"There are so many unknowns with the insurance," he said. "I don't even get to choose my options. One thing's for sure — it will never be like that again. It just had so much character and was a staple in Comox."
The Lorne Hotel has been called the oldest operating pub in B.C.
It's been reported that John Fitzpatrick built the Lorne in 1878. Named after the Marquis of Lorne, then Canada's Governor General, it was the community's first hotel.
Many people stood sadly around the building's remains Monday morning, some taking pictures.
“I just think it’s very sad it’s gone,” said Dee Fontaine of Comox. “It was a landmark here. I hope it doesn’t get replaced by some medical facility or offices. I’d like to see it rebuilt. I think it will be very missed in Comox, even if people didn’t hang out here.”
Comox Mayor Paul Ives expressed his concern for the Kacavendas as he stood across the street.
“We’re going to make sure things are going OK with them,” he said. “They obviously had a lot of money and time invested. We really feel for them.
“We really feel for the staff who work there, and we’re very thankful no one was hurt,” he added.
Comox Coun. Ken Grant noted it was not a good day for the town.
"That’s a building everyone really liked in our town," he said. "We’re always looking for ways to get people to come to our main street, and the Lorne was a pretty unique thing.”
While Grant joked that he couldn’t share his personal memories from the Lorne, he noted, “I don’t think you can grow up in the Comox Valley and not have personal memories of the Lorne Hotel.”
Chris Graham, owner of the nearby Purple Onion Delicatessen, saw the fire blazing at about 6 a.m.
“I was walking by, and I walked down Church Street, and I could see the glow in the sky and the smoke,” he said. “When I came onto Comox Avenue, I saw it was the Lorne, and it was a real sad thing to see.”
Graham believes the Lorne has brought a lot of people to downtown Comox.
“Especially the tourists, they pull up in their boats and maybe stay in the hotels, and even if they don’t drink at the Lorne Hotel, they see that beautiful old building, and it personifies our little town,” he said. “Quite honestly, we’re going to lose that character by losing that landmark.”
Kevin Moore of Comox liked the Lorne because it was reliable.
“The Lorne never changed,” he said. “The Lorne was the Lorne — it was the same year after year. I’ve been in the Valley 15 years, and the Lorne was the same when I first came up until yesterday. It just was always there.”
The landscape on Comox Avenue has changed dramatically in a matter of hours.
“I purposely walked down Port Augusta and looked down,” said Moore. “I’ve been driving that corner 15 years, and it was always there. It was there yesterday and gone today.”