Weekend fire devastates Kuujjuaq apartment complex


MONTREAL — Last Friday night, a frightening inferno frustrated the Kuujjuaq’s volunteer fire department’s best attempts to bring it under control.

Alerted at around 10 p.m., May 12 Kuujjuaq fire chief Ian Robertson finally had to tell his 13 firefighters to back off around 1:30 a.m. May 13.

By that time, it was clear that the two-storey, four-apartment building, owned by the Kativik School Board, was a total, smouldering loss.

“We’ve done very well in the past,” Robertson said. “This is the first building we’ve lost in several years.”

Robertson said firefighters were foiled in their efforts to reach the fire’s source.

“The fire was in the basement, and we couldn’t get access to it. It required going down a narrow set of stairs, and the two who managed to get in had problems. They could see the fire, but they couldn’t get to it. By the time we got into the basement from an outside storm door, forcing it open, the whole basement was ablaze,” Robertson said.

Efforts to bring the fire under control were also hampered by the building’s construction. Built in the 1970s, it contained flammable materials and lacked a fire wall between the basement and the four apartments.

More than 1000 litres of fuel oil were also stored in the basement, and as the fire’s heat increased in intensity, hot, burning oil spewed up through vents.

“It was quite a spectacle,” said Robertson. “For those that had the time to enjoy it.”

With the flames fanned by a brisk wind, firefighters couldn’t bring the blaze under control.

During the fire, a critical piece of firefighting equipment also failed, Robertson said.

A cooling fan on the main pumper malfunctioned, causing it to shut down, and forcing firefighters to improvise by attaching hoses to two municipal water trucks. Smoke from the fire also blew towards the fire station and made it difficult to refill oxygen tanks.

Kuujjuaq is the best-equipped of Nunavik’s communities in fighting fires, but Robertson said much of their present equipment is outdated. The fire department has been trying to raise $140,000 to buy a new compressed foam system.

“We’ve got about half that amount. It would have been nice to have it the other night, but now it’s too late,” Robertson said.

The Quebec government has promised Nunavik more money to bring its firefighting capacity up to par, but Kuujjuaq is unlikely to see much of it because the community is considered to be relatively well off.

Losses are estimated at $1.5 million.

Among the four tenants who lost all their belongings is Jaanimmarik School School principal, Peter Bentley. Contributions for the fire’s victims are now being accepted at the Bank of Commerce in Kuujjuaq.

According to the Kativik Regional Police Force, the fire was probably not suspicious in origin.

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