'It's the biggest fire I've had to deal with in 15 years.'

Fueled by propane, blaze destroys Salluit co-op


Salluit's community centre now serves as a makeshift office and store, following a fire that destroyed the community's large co-op store and warehouse complex March 2.

Dazed bystanders watched as firefighters attacked the blaze for nearly 12 hours in dark, bitterly cold, and stormy conditions.

But despite their efforts, which have been described as "heroic," they were unable to stop flames from spreading throughout the store and its adjoining warehouses.

"When the wind picked up, it just fueled the fire into every nook and cranny," Salluit's exhausted fire chief, Michael Cameron, told Nunatsiaq News in a telephone interview on Monday morning. "We had the fire in control for some time, but then the propane and the bullets just went."

The loss of the co-op store will affect nearly everyone in the community. Founded in 1967, it's one of the largest employers in town, with about 20 workers.

And it's a blow to the new financial services centre, operated with the Caisse Populaire credit union, which had offered a range of banking services to co-op members since last November.

As well, there is now no more cable television in Salluit.

Jonathan De Serres, a store development agent with the Fédération des cooperatives du Nouveau-Québec who was in Salluit at the time of the fire, said their top priority now is to open an office where members can gain access to their accounts, and then set up a grocery store.

It's fortunate that a complete back-up of all computerized store records had been done on Sunday at 5 p.m., just hours before the fire broke out, De Serres said.

Cameron and his firefighters first arrived at the scene about 8 p.m. Sunday.

They started to fight the flames from the back of the most recently built section of the store.

But they were forced to pull out after a half an hour, leaving the building just before a sudden boom blew out its doors and knocked firefighters off their feet.

Several other explosions occurred over the long night, when the fire ignited ammunition, propane and naptha.

Two firefighters were slightly injured.

"It was a nightmare fire. It was very unpredictable," Cameron said.

At about 5:30 on Monday morning, Cameron finally left the smoldering fire to put the fire truck back in the station. Due to reduced visibility from the full-scale blizzard, he couldn't make it back to the fire.

But firefighters still at the fire kept him up to date and they declared the fire under control by 7:30 a.m., although the embers continued to burn throughout the day around the collapsed roof of the store, which celebrated its grand re-opening in December, 2006.

Losses are sure to exceed several million dollars.

However, by dousing the nearby co-op hotel and two dwellings, firefighters were able to prevent the fire from spreading and causing even more property damage.

Also on hand were municipal workers and community members, who helped direct vehicles and move containers away from the heat.

Cameron said deteriorating weather conditions, with winds up to 80 kilometres an hour and high wind chills, made fighting the fire even more challenging.

"We did everything we could with everything we had," Cameron said. "It's the biggest fire I've had to deal with in 15 years."

Cameron has extensive training as a firefighter, and his 10 volunteer firefighters each have between five to 15 years of firefighting experience.

And, with a pumper, three water trucks and breathing apparatus for its firefighters, Salluit's fire department is also "relatively well-equipped" compared with many other Nunavik communities, said the Kativik Regional Government's civil security assistant coordinator, Craig Lingard.

As for the cause of the fire, FCNQ president Mark Ammamatuak, while speaking on the Taqramiut Nipingat Inc. radio network on Monday morning, suggested an electrical wiring fault, possibly in the furnace area.

But an official investigation into the origin of fire will involve the fire department, police and insurance companies.

This is the second major fire to hit Nunavik's co-operative network in recent years. In May 2002, Puvirnituq's co-op store burned to the ground. It was later replaced by a new co-op superstore.

Following this fire, the co-op association and the FCNQ set up a temporary office and store, Air Inuit slashed its cargo rates to help the recovery effort, and other co-ops in Nunavik offered to use snowmobiles to transport dangerous goods that couldn't be sent by air.

The date for the first sealift of the summer was also advanced – and the transport ship made its first stop along the Hudson Bay coast in Puvirnituq.

Similar measures are expected to assist Salluit, population 1,200, which will continue to have access to a Northern store for supplies.

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