When the Moosomin Fire Department was dispatched early last Monday morning, just after 2 a.m., they found North American Lumber building on Park Avenue almost completely engulfed in flames.
The fire started in the south end of the building, in a cold storage area for lumber, plywood, siding, and other stock. The fire was still burning hot in the early hours of the morning, and fire crews were still working into the afternoon putting out hot spots.
“In a fire like that, you don’t put it out. When it’s got a hold like that, you can’t extinguish it. Your best line of attack is to get water on it, cool it down, slow it down, and look after exposure—in our case, it was to ensure Co-op and Bradley’s were not effected,” says fire chief Rob Hanson.
When the fire was still burning, it was a ‘nervous moment’ for firefighters as large embers were blown onto Bradley’s GM, but with crews monitoring the embers hitting the building and cold weather and packed snow from a snowfall over the weekend, no other buildings were in danger, and the wind kept the embers off of the Shell Gas Station and Co-op Hardware Store beside North American Lumber.
Later into the day, the smoke cleared, and the entire building was reduced to a charred pile of rubble.
“When you go into a burned building like that, you can see the structure of the building—you can see the contents, but anything that would burn just isn’t there,” Hanson says. “It’s like looking at a skeleton.”
Around noon, investigators from the Office of the Fire Commissioner were on site looking for a cause. However, the complete destruction of the building made the investigation difficult, and the results of the investigation say the cause was undetermined. Fire Commissioner Duane McKay says there is a likelihood that it was an electrical fire.
“When we look at defining what causes a fire, unless we can be 100 per cent conclusive as to the source of ignition, we will say it is undetermined, but indications are that it was very cold temperatures, there was some electrical equipment in that area, so our suspicion would be that it would be electrically-related, but we cannot be 100 per cent conclusive about it,”
McKay says. “The hard evidence has to be dug out of the rubble, but cold temperatures and the amount of debris slows the investigation, or hampers our ability to find out exactly what happened there.”
In the winter, there is a higher risk of electrical fires. McKay says that provincially, there are more fires in the winter months.
“We see this during the cold snaps, where people are using extension cords, or space heaters running, it’s not unusual to see a spike in the number of the fires in the winter,” he says.
Hanson says this is true in the region during the winter.
“In the winter time, most definitely, electrical fires are common. You’ve got extension cords, space heaters, cords from plug-in block heaters, we’ve seen issues with cords that have ended up stuck under a couch leg and shorted out as it wore down,” he says.
Fighting fires in freezing temperatures throughout the winter can present special challenges for fire crews as well.
“The biggest challenge with this kind of weather is hypothermia with the guys. You have to keep an eye on things with that, as well as slips and falls, we’ve had a few of those, plus your equipment freezing up. Water can freeze in the line. If that happens, we have to break the hoses down, and thaw them out at the hall. We’re pretty careful about preventing that, we make sure that we keep water running,” Hanson says.
In terms of preventing hypothermia or accidents, he says the fire department works well as a team to look out for each other.
“We worked in shifts, but a few guys stayed out most of the time. But the guys were well orchestrated, they looked after each other, they decided when they needed breaks, and someone was always there to pick up the nozzle,” he says.
North American Lumber opened in Moosomin two years ago, and the loss of the location is a blow to the community and company. North American Lumber Vice President of Operations Mark Kennedy says the estimated loss for the company is around $1.5 million.
“It’s a huge impact on the company. We’re working with our insurance company to see what our options are. We are covered, so we’re working with them in the investigation, and once we get the determination on how much is covered, that will determine what we do moving forward in the long term,” Kennedy says.
Local staff and management are reeling from what happened. Joanne Tracey became the manager at North American Lumber in Moosomin a month ago. She found out about the fire when she pulled into town for work on Monday morning.
“I have been commuting from Reston, Manitoba, and nobody locally had my emergency number yet, because I have only been there for a month now,” she says. “When I pulled into town and saw the smoke, it was like, ‘Oh. That is our store.’ You could focus in the smoke on what you were seeing, and you realize there’s no warehouse, and then you realize the whole store is gone—I can’t even describe the feeling.”
The previous manager, Heather Gray, was contacted to get in touch with Joanne, who says she did not see her phone ringing when she received the calls around 7 a.m. because she was driving on the highway. Pulling up to the wreckage is a moment Tracey says she will always remember.
“That was one of those days that the recognition of what was happening when it hit me, I will never forget that. When I realized that everything was totally gone—the total devastation.”
Tracey, along with the regional managers and Kennedy were in meetings the entire day discussing the future of North American Lumber in Moosomin now.
“We don’t know what will happen at this point, we’re looking at options and we want to continue to support the community of Moosomin continuing from our other locations in the short term while we discuss options of rebuilding or moving,” Kennedy says. “Right now, we’re exploring all our options of a new location, existing rebuild, or continuing service through our other locations. It’s too soon to tell or make a decision about what we are going to do. In the interim, we’re looking at short term solutions to support the customers who have supported us, and we’ll continue to do so from our other locations as we consider what we’re going to do moving forward. “
Customers can still call North American Lumber, and calls will go to Tracey, who will still be able to take orders and do business with the other facilities in the region in Esterhazy, Carlyle, Melville, and Carnduff. Kennedy says he’s confident the fire will not mean the end of business for North American Lumber in Moosomin.
“Moosomin is a great place to do business and we want to continue that . . . we can still do business out of this location as of right now, through the other yards, so we want to continue to do business in Moosomin,” he says. “The outlook is we plan to continue in Moosomin. It’s been a good community for our company, and we’re certainly not thinking of not being here, but in what form and what time frame, it’s too early in the process to tell.”
The loss will also mean some layoffs for the store. There were six staff members including Tracey, and the assistant manager, Matt Tracey. The four part-time employees will all have temporary layoffs.
“I was the one who had to let people know what happened and tell them to go home,” says Tracey. “It’s hard, I mean, there’s nobody I know of that works and doesn’t need their job. So, it’s hard to tell people that something you’ve come to rely on isn’t going to be there in the short term. And we had a very good team of employees, and you hate to lose that if someone has to move on because of the circumstances.”
Tracey says she’s positive all the layoffs will be temporary until a rebuild or relocation starts. In the meantime, the company is waiting for quotes from their insurance company, and is beginning clean-up of the site.
“The hope is that we can rebuild, but nothing can be set in stone until we know insurance, and all the financial impact. I am hoping we can have more information for our employees and community after we have that information,” Tracey says.
“I tend to try to stay positive. That first few hours was devastating, but I always look for what positive can be found. The assistant manager is the same. We can’t look back, and it doesn’t help to think about the what ifs, so let’s look forward, and look for a positive outcome to this.”