A large fire that broke out on Columbia Street in downtown New Westminster, B.C., on Thursday morning and destroyed roughly half a block of the historic neighbourhood appears to be finally under control.

Police say the fire broke out sometime before 3:40 a.m. PT at a building on the corner of Columbia and MacKenzie streets, and by 5 a.m. the building was engulfed in flames.

Witnesses reported hearing an explosion around 5:30 a.m., which firefighters say was propane tanks.

"At one point there was an explosion and the whole sky lit up. I could hear it from my bedroom where I was watching it," said Sheryl Goudreau, who watched the fire burn from her nearby building.

By 6 a.m. the E.L. Lewis building that once housed the Copp's family shoe store had collapsed. A new bridal shop and a restaurant in the building were also destroyed.

For a short time the fire appeared be under control, but by 6:50 a.m. the flames had broken out again in at least one neighbouring business, and firefighters were battling to get the fire under control.

Initially about four fire trucks were called to the fire, but around 7 a.m. several more trucks arrived by police escort.

By 7:30 a.m. the fire appeared to have destroyed several more businesses on Columbia and Front streets, including several bridal shops, a restaurant, a bead shop and some lawyers' offices. Even more were threatened by the flames.

Many of the buildings in the historic downtown neighbourhood have wooden frames behind their brick facades, and firefighters said they were very concerned about the fire spreading farther.

Shortly after 9 a.m., New Westminster fire Chief Tim Armstrong said two buildings were destroyed, but he was confident the fire was finally under control and was hopeful crews would be able to save two other buildings on the block.

"I'm pretty confident that we have got a handle on it now. I never like to say we have a total handle on it until the fire is completely struck out, so we are still aggressively working on it."

Firefighters expect to be on the scene, putting out the remains of the fire, for the rest of the day.

Historic building destroyed

The building where the fire first broke out housed the old Copp's family shoe store for 90 years, but the location recently reopened as a new bridal shop, according to neighbourhood resident Sheryl Goudreau.

New Westminster fire

Lincoln the cat was rescued from one of the buildings by firefighters, his owner told CBC News.

The former operator of the shoe store and co-owner of the building Terry Brine said he was devastated by the loss.

"It's very emotional right now. It hits your heart. I've worked in that store for 42 years, basically grew up there, retired out of it. The new tenants are in there and did a nice job renovating and wow, it's all gone," said Brine.

Copp's Shoes, New Westminster

The fire reportedly broke out in a building that used to house the old Copp's shoe store. (Google maps)

Many of the buildings in the area were built after the Great Fire of 1898 destroyed much of downtown New Westminster.

Traffic has been shut down on several streets in the area, including Columbia and Front streets between Sixth and Eighth streets.

There are no reports of any injuries, and no cause for the fire has been released by firefighters. But officials say a roofing crew had been working on the building in recent days.

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