Niagara-on-the-Lake’s crew of 60 firefighters used every fire apparatus the town has but were simply “outmatched” due to a lack of available water as they battled a massive blaze that engulfed an old chicken farm turned business facility Tuesday, fire chief Nick Ruller says.
The fire created a thick plume of dark smoke that could be seen from several kilometres away, across most of NOTL and firefighters worked through the night to bring it under control.
The three huge, 500-foot repurposed former barns at 1238 Townline Rd. were home to several businesses, including Reclaimed by Roots, a custom producer of live-edge wood products.
The barns housed a variety of businesses, including auto repair, storage of high-end boats and some that were "building racecars," Ruller said.
He estimated the damage total at $2.5 million and said fire crews helped save between $2.5 miliion and $4 million in property.
The rural area doesn't have fire hydrants, so with the size of the fire, the fire crews were "outmatched," Ruller said, but noted no one was injured.
He said two additional tankers were called in from the Thorold Fire Department to provide more water for firefighters, on top of NOTL's own pair of 3,000-gallon tankers.
"We had a report that there may be a couple of barn cats that were in there, but beyond that we weren't in a position to do any searches based on the conditions," he said in an interview at the scene.
At least four GoFundMe campaigns have been launched to help victims recover from the fire. As of Wednesday night they had raised more than $11,000.
One of the fundraisers was started Tuesday night by Kyle Vanderheiden of St. Catharines, who said he lost "thousands of dollars worth of automotive technician tools" in the fire.
In an online posting, Vanderheiden said as the barns burned, "I gave up watching when I saw firefighters break down our door, kneel down and fight a blazing fire.'
Ruller said crews were dispatched at about 2:30 p.m. and he was only a couple of kilometres away when the call came in.
He could see heavy black smoke and "we upgraded the call immediately," he told The Lake Report.
When he arrived, fire had engulfed one of the three buildings at the facility, which had multiple exposures to other areas because the buildings were all adjoined, Ruller said.
"What we have here is a former chicken barn that's been repurposed and these are almost individual units where there's various occupancies. Some are doing automotive repair, some are building racecars."
In between each 500-foot chicken barn were "plastic hoop houses where they were storing vehicles and boats and things like that. So we ran into some serious access issues in here, which became problematic for us," Ruller said.
The buildings being tightly packed together made it difficult for firefighters to get at the blaze.
"What was happening is the fire was getting into the chicken barns and they have a common attic for the whole 500 feet, and it is separated beneath by a plywood ceiling."
The fire quickly ran through the common attic space and spread to the other two units, Ruller said.
"So our crews, they can't get under it. The fire is running that concealed space."
He said the only access would have been if the fires burned through the metal roofs.
"Or we try and start pulling the ceiling down, but you can't pull plywood, so we did our best to get in and get under it. We found some voids where we were able to get water in, however we ended up with building instability issues here, and we couldn't commit crews to the interior," he said.
"Our focus at that point was just a full-blown evacuation. We had crews begin searching all of the chicken barns for occupants and ensuring that everyone's out of the buildings, and at that point we shifted to defensive operations strictly."
Here are links to the GoFundMe campaigns launched to help fire victims: