*Editor’s note: This story was updated Jan. 8, after first being reported Jan. 2.
By 4 a.m. on Jan. 2, five hours after responding to the fire at the 2217 five-plex, Iqaluit’s acting fire chief Stephane Dionne knew the fight was over.
The building had to come down.
Dionne said in any fire, it’s a matter of weighing loss against gain.
“My job is life. If I put my firefighter’s life in jeopardy, I have to calculate what the gain is. Can I do the rescue without hurting my firefighter. Because if my firefighter gets hurt, then I need four more people to rescue the firefighter,” he said.
“Sometimes you have to decide what is the loss you’re willing to live with.”
Firefighters were on the scene for 13 hours.
After receiving the call at 11 p.m. on Jan. 1, Dionne and deputy chief Nelson Johnson were first on the scene, and attempted to put out the fire with fire extinguishers, while ensuring all five units were fully evacuated.
As fire trucks and more firefighters arrived, Dionne and Johnson – the duty officer that night – continued to adjust to the complexity of the fire.
The fire began at one end of the crawlspace, which spanned all five units in the two-storey building. A heater, used to thaw frozen water pipes, is seen as the likely cause of the blaze.
“The space was open so the fire was able to crawl its way in, all the way under the building, and pop up into each apartment by the crawlspace,” said Dionne, adding it wasn’t possible to send a team into the crawlspace for a variety of tactical reasons, not the least of which was the safety of firefighters.
“When the fire truck arrived, we started to spray water until we had a full crew of about 18 (volunteer and full-time) showing up to fight the fire.”
Crews used up to 700 gallons of water per minute, causing water outages in areas at higher elevation, including the Road to Nowhere subdivision.
Dionne said they tried to save some of the units, and managed to extinguish the main fire, but flames had spread.
The heat was hot enough to melt snow on a neighbouring five-plex.
“For a while we had to make sure it was covered (with water). We had to cool it all the time,” Dionne said.
Temperatures dropped to -32C, with a windchill of -42C, impeding the effort.
“Everything freezes rapidly. You have to make sure there is water flowing all the time in a nozzle, or in five minutes the pipe is frozen,” he said. “Close to the house, it’s all water. If you slip you get all wet. If you go 10, 15, 20 feet from the house, that’s turning to ice. If you go from wet to ice, you stick, then it’s slippery because you have ice on ice.”
Exhausted firefighters returned to the station by noon, and all the trucks were released from the scene. One truck returned to the scene because a hot spot remained active.
During the fire, the department continued to respond to ambulance calls, with a couple of responders leaving and returning to the fire.
“And dispatch still has to deal with all the calls about not having water,” said Dionne.
The acting fire chief also noted many “shadow people”, with all hands on deck: municipal officers, RCMP, airport emergency staff, and even people bringing coffee.
The Red Cross was involved in finding evacuees a place to stay at Capital Suites. The community quickly came together on Facebook to provide necessities for the displaced families. Donations were being accepted at Grind and Brew, the Catholic Parish Hall, as well as being delivered to directly at Capital Suites.
The area around Joamie School remained closed into Tuesday afternoon as heavy machinery cleaned ice and debris from the section of road surrounding the fire.
“Public Works started repairing the damage I did to the road at 6:00 a.m.,” said Dionne.
While Dionne said Jan. 4 that the fire remained under investigation, he warned against leaving heaters unattended.
“Always have eyes on,” he said.