Monday July 15, 1996
$2-million fire devastates Watson Lake
By Caroline Murray
Watson Lake is recouping after a vital Yukon government-owned building - home to everything from its local library to the post office - burned to the ground Sunday.
The damage is currently estimated to be around $2 million, RCMP Sgt. Dana Gibbons said in an interview this morning from the south east Yukon Community.
"This is a very, very horrendous loss to this community."
Fire experts from Whitehorse and Vancouver are expected to arrive in the town of about 1,700 people to determine the cause of the blaze.
Destroyed was: the firehall, ambulance services, the post office, the library, the building inspector's office, the territorial Department of Health and Social Services offices, the probation services branch, the town office, the Watson Lake Housing Association, the court office and courtroom, and the Outreach employment centre.
Also among the losses was Smokey, a five-year-old cat that lived inside the library.
The downtown building's fire alarm sounded at 3:10 a.m. At about the same time, said Gibbons, some witnesses in the area spotted an orange glow inside the building, and went to a nearby hotel to call for help.
For "a good seven hours," the fire department battled the blaze, which had already consumed the entire building. The volunteer fire fighters managed to prevent it from spreading to any nearby buildings.
Mayor Barry Ravenhill was sleeping in his home when he got a 4:20 a.m. phone call from his neighbor, informing him of the events.
"I jumped out of bed and went to see what was going on," he said in an interview this morning. The blaze had already been burning for about 1 1/2 hours when he arrived.
"It was fairly clear we wouldn't be able to recover the building," he said of his initial reaction. "I thought, 'What do we do next ... Where do we go from here?'"
Former Star sports editor Rob Driscoll was in Watson Lake overnight while driving from his Calgary home to Whitehorse with his family. He was at the scene at around 9 a.m. Sunday, watching firefighters try to extinguish the blaze.
"I saw smoke, whipped down my pancakes and went over," he said.
"To think that a town of that size losing its city hall, social services, library and post office. This will be felt for such a long time .... So many different people will be affected by it."
Watson Lake residents are already feeling the effects of being without some of its major services, said the mayor.
"I don't believe the mail is being dropped off," said Ravenhill.
"People are shocked and confused. People don't know where to go for the mail, for example. It's definitely a shocker.
"....It's my opinion that I think YTG (the Yukon government) will have to rebuild some sort of a structure someplace. These services do have to be provided."
The two fire trucks, both saved along with ambulance, are now being stored in other buildings, he said.
Some of the government employees are operating out of their homes. The mayor estimates that about 26 people worked inside the building.
The government "is currently working with the Town of Watson Lake and its other clients in the building to decide what to do to replace the building." Alan Nordling, the Minister of Government Services, said in an interview this afternoon.
"It's possible the town may want to build another building for some of its services, rather than leasing from the government."
Efforts are underway to accommodate the various services into available space, said Nordling. The library will be using material from one of the schools. The next circuit court will be held out of the seniors' centre, and the Yukon Housing Corp. has two available units.
As well, space may be available at two local shops, the basement of the visitors' reception centre, one of the wings of the elementary school, in Watson Lake Tags' laundry, and in the basement of the mining recorders office, he added.
Unfortunately, few items were saved from the flames.
It was by good chance that the computer discs belonging to the town's computer system were being replaced at the time and out of the office, said Ravenhill.
The government building was originally erected in the 1950s, but was in the process of being upgraded.
"A lot of work had gone into its inside to try and dress it up," noted Gibbons.
There were plans underway to install new, energy-efficient windows and to construct a better access for the physically-disabled, he noted.
The building was self-insured, said Nordling. With the exception of the schools, none of the government buildings in rural communities are insured.
"Because insurance is so expensive with our buildings in the rural areas," he noted.
The government has a risk-management fund to set money aside for emergencies like this, he said.
The fund has $500,000.
"Whether that's enough or not, I doubt it ..... We will have to look at the long-term arrangements.
Meanwhile, the RCMP are not yet saying whether the fire was accidental or arson.
Police believe the fire began in the back of the building, near the loading dock.
"There's a number of theories floating around the community," Gibbons said. "I don't buy any of them. We're looking at everything from an accident to arson.
"We will consider it a suspicious fire until it's proven otherwise... We have no proof to be able to consider it arson."
The investigation involves the collecting of physical evidence, like scene analysis and forensic evidence, and the gathering of statements.
"There has been a lot of statements taken from the people who first spotted it to those who first arrived at the scene."
One theory is that the fire may have started in either the metal or the plywood dumpsters located at the rear of the building, he said.
"We don't know whether the fire started outside or inside. The evidence necessitates us to look at both possibilities."
July 16, 1996
Fire was a hopeless cause - captain
By Caroline Murray
The Watson Lake Fire Department says it could never have licked the flames that reduced the community's Yukon government- owned building to smoldering ashes Sunday.
"What it boils down to is that there was no way we could have won," Capt. Richard Durocher said in an interview this morning.
By the time firefighters arrived at the scene between 3-3:30 a.m., "it was already too far gone," the fire captain said. "We tried to contain it and put it out, but it had already gone into the crawl space between the two floors."
"The building was built in two stages," Durocher pointed out. "The second floor was built on top of the first floor, creating a large crawl space between the two floors."
That space provided the flames ample room to live and breathe. another problem for volunteer firefighters was "too many rooms that the fire could spread to."
Durocher spent nearly 13 hours at the scene Sunday. During this time, local business owners and residents displayed generous support, he said.
The fire department's strategy was time-consuming, but had successfully prevented the potentially contagious blaze from spreading to nearby buildings, he noted.
"Basically, we kept the outside walls cooled off so that the inside would cave in."
The firefighters were concerned about the apartment building and the service station respectively located some six metres and nine metres away from the conflagration.
It was not until around 8 a.m. that a third fire truck arrived at the scene from the Watson Lake Airport, where it's stored. The airport is some 11 kilometres away from the town centre.
"I think there was a little mix-up with communication," Durocher said of the truck's late arrival.
Fire experts begin probing the scene
Initially, the airport staff sent over extra airpacks to help the firefighters, he said. But, someone had to be sent back to get the third fire truck.
Neither Durocher nor airport manager Jim Spring believe an earlier arrival of that third truck would have saved the building.
"It was definitely important....It did help suppress the fire fairly well," said Durocher. But "all we could do with that fire was contain it."
Said Spring: "The truck was no good...It was useless to them."
The manager said the town-owned truck was designed for use in aircraft emergencies, not structural fires. It sprays a combinations of foam and water.
"If it had been the only truck there (Sunday), it wouldn't have been the type they needed...It was good for back-up."
Spring believes the only equipment the airport had that could assist the fire-fighters were the airpacks, which provided the crew with extra oxygen in the smoky conditions.
Even with just the assistance of two fire trucks during the first several hours, the crew contained the fire. Durocher calls the efforts of the volunteer fire fighters "outstanding".
"I haven't got one complaint; they all did a great job."
He estimates that between 12 and 13 firefighters were at the scene, all but one being male.
The firefighters all have their level one training, Durocher pointed out.
With one job finishing, another begins. Fire experts began arriving in Watson Lake today to start their investigation into how the fire began.
"We're expecting things to get underway by supper time," said Sgt. Dana Gibbons, the RCMP detachment's commanding officer.
"This has become our highest priority."
All nine members at the Watson Lake detachment are working on the case. Gibbons spent part of yesterday afternoon arranging for an expert to come from Outside.
With the building demolished, "We need the opinion of expert and trained fire investigators to tell us whether the fire was set, accidental, or whatever."
Cpl. Ray Noble of Edmonton was expected to arrive via RCMP plane in the community today. The fire expert was stationed at the Whitehorse detachment prior to last year's transfer to Alberta.
"He's meticulous," said Gibbons of his work.
Also leading the investigation is Jim Smith, the Yukon's acting fire marshal.
It's expected that the experts will spend up to three days searching through the debris for clues as to how the fire, which caused an estimated $2 million in damage, started.
Officials believe it may have ignited at the back of the building, near the loading dock.
Police have not yet determined whether the starting point was outside or inside the building.
There have been two security cleared guards keeping 24-hour watches at the site, Gibbons said.
"The building contained some sensitive records, such as from the court registry office, and the post office. Although there's not a whole lot left.... some of these records may have survived."
The guards have also been monitoring the scene to ensure none of the evidence is disturbed, said Gibbons.