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Nanaimo commercial block ‘a total loss’ from fire: official

Fifteen businesses have been destroyed by a massive fire that raged for hours and ravaged a historic building in the heart of downtown Nanaimo. Fire crews were called to the blaze at 10 Commercial St. at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Fifteen businesses have been destroyed by a massive fire that raged for hours and ravaged a historic building in the heart of downtown Nanaimo.

Fire crews were called to the blaze at 10 Commercial St. at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Windows popped and thick black smoke spewed out of the two-storey retail space.

About 40 firefighters fought through the night to contain the fire, which spread through vacant spaces in the old building, which covers a city block.

“The block will be a total loss,” said Karen Lindsay, emergency program manager for the City of Nanaimo. “It got away and they’ve been chasing it through the night. It was very intense. We had our full complement of stations and called in crews for support. It was a very long night for them.”

No one was injured.

Nanaimo Fire Chief Craig Richardson said the cause of the fire is not known and no damage estimate has been made.

“We are still in the assessment stages of whether or not the building is safe to enter to actually perform the investigation,” he said.

Firefighters worked hard to keep the blaze from spreading, Richardson said. “Any time there’s fires in those types of buildings, the older, downtown construction that’s so popular in B.C., it’s not uncommon to lose several buildings or even a block. We were able to confine it to portions of the main building and save structures around [it].

“I feel this is what I would qualify as a very good save.”

Late Thursday afternoon, Rick Hynes, operator of Crankshaw Holdings, which owns the building, said at least half, if not all, of the building will have to be torn down.

“I think this is going to be a long-term thing. We’re waiting for the engineer to tell us what needs to happen. Then the insurance company will have to decide what they want to do and it will go from there,” he said.

“Then we’ll have to work with the city and ask them what they want in place of it and then work with architects and other planners and see what we can come up with. It’s going to be a long process.”

The wedge-shaped building, which is on the Nanaimo Heritage Registry, is actually three buildings in one, Hynes said. It had 10 private office spaces upstairs and five occupied retail spaces on the ground floor.

It housed Bastion Gallery Fast Frames, Hired Guns Creative graphic design shop, a clothing store, three art studios, and the Nanaimo Arts Council office and gallery space.

Melanie Godel, president of the Nanaimo Arts Council, said the group was preparing for its month-long arts exhibition to open Saturday.

Unfortunately, 13 artists had dropped off their artwork — mostly paintings and photography — on Wednesday just hours before the fire broke out.

“The good news is the gallery space is only a fraction of what we do,” Godel said.

The group’s members were already working Thursday to come up with another venue and fundraise for those who lost artwork in the fire.

Coun. Jerry Hong, who owns the nearby Queen’s Hotel, called the fire “a tragic hit for downtown.”

“To lose an iconic building at a critical juncture in downtown is a big blow for the businesses. Hopefully, they can rebuild from it.”

As fast as the building was lost, community members rose up to help one another, put the losses into perspective and reopen their doors.

Thrifty Foods brought food to fire crews throughout the night, while Gabriel’s Cafe offered free meals to those affected by the blaze. “We’ve done the best we can,” said owner Gemma Martin, who said the fire has left “a big hole” in the area. “We just thought that a lot of the business owners might be down there trying to assess the situation and being in a state of shock.

“So we thought: Why not offer them a breakfast or a lunch so they can not have to worry too much about where their next meal is going to come from?”

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

jwbell@timescolonist.com

— With files from Louise Dickson