SAINT JOHN, New Brunswick — A fierce and stubborn fire that started in a vacant building in Saint John’s south end has left 14 people homeless after it spread to a three-story apartment building early Sunday in biting cold.
Now fire officials want to remove the icy remains of the two fire-ravaged buildings, which had collapsed by Sunday night.
“There’s no doubt in our mind that these buildings are not safe and are a hazard to the public,” platoon chief Eric Garland said Sunday as firefighters continued to spray water on the frozen skeletons of two wood-frame buildings, hours after the fire displaced 16 residents, including five children.
Garland said the fire would not be completely out until the Mecklenburg Street buildings were removed. The fire department was in talks with city building inspectors to fast-track demolition.
“It’s just impossible to get into the collapsed areas that are covered right now in ice,” he said. “That building is smoldering under the debris.”
The fire started at around 2 a.m. Sunday in the bitter cold. No one was hurt, but 14 people are now being assisted by the Canadian Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Two other residents have found other housing.
The fire started in a vacant building at 70-72 Mecklenburg St. before spreading to an occupied apartment building next door, said platoon chief Peter Saab.
When firefighters arrived, there was heavy smoke and fire coming from the vacant building, Saab said.
The bulk of the fire was coming from the first floor, before quickly shooting up to the roof and to the building next door.
The residents in the three-story apartment building, along with people from two other nearby buildings, were evacuated from the scene before the fire spread. They waited in warm city buses before being taken to an area hotel.
Later Sunday morning, sheets of ice clung to the buildings and weighed down power lines as firefighters continued to shoot water from ladder trucks. Thick ice covered the ground and an icy mist floated in the 8-degree morning, which felt much colder with the wind chill.
Sonya Dunn, who lives across the street, said she woke up to the sound of a fire alarm followed by the sound of a chainsaw cutting through the boards on the vacant house.
She saw a lot of smoke and flames before a crowd of residents quickly escaped with small bags.
“They’ve been battling it all night. I’m just glad everyone got out,” she said.
Dunn and her neighbours had no electric heat as the fire raged outside.
Saint John Energy had disconnected power to all homes along the block because of water being sprayed above high-tension power lines, Garland said. Electricity and heat were expected to be restored later Sunday.
George Savoy was among the many south end residents who stopped by the fire scene on Sunday.
“It looks like an ice sculpture,” he said, looking at the buildings covered in thick coats of snow and ice. The back of the buildings were completely destroyed and the side of the vacant building was buckling.
“I’m surprised it’s still standing,” Savoy said.
The Canadian Red Cross arranged emergency lodging, food and clothing purchases for nine adults and five children. Two other adults made their own arrangements.
The Salvation Army offered warm drinks, food and emotional support from its emergency response vehicle, said Nelson Watkins, community response coordinator.
Meanwhile, the extreme cold made firefighting difficult.
“Cold weather and water don’t mix very well. We had a hard time getting our water lines laid and keeping everything from freezing,” Saab said.
The cold also makes it difficult to extinguish the fire, he added.
“It’s terrible hard [to get a fire out]. There’s a fair amount of ice build-up all around the building, so it makes it hard to get around it and just keeping our lines from freezing is a major deal,” he said.
At its peak, there were more than 30 firefighters on the scene. They managed to contain the blaze to the two old wood-frame buildings on a street where buildings are situated close together.
Firefighters switched out periodically so they could get “warmth and nourishment,” Saab said, adding the cold takes a toll on their energy levels.
Fire crews were still on the scene late Sunday and expected to stay there through the night. Stubborn hot spots continued to burn beneath piles of rubble.
“The building has collapsed upon itself,” Saab said. “It’s trapped some live fire underneath and there’s just enough oxygen to keep things burning.”
Saab said there was no risk of the fire spreading, but crews had to stay until Monday, when excavators could move the rubble.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.