One-year anniversary of downtown blaze
The streetscape of downtown Amherst changed dramatically after last August's fire that destroyed the Windsor and Black Block buildings.Its effects are still being felt today.
AMHERST – The face of downtown Amherst changed forever a year ago when a massive fire destroyed the historic Windsor and Black Block buildings.
The fire displaced more than 40 families and several businesses and organizations and let to a massive community response.
That effort is still being remembered a year later.
“It wasn’t the biggest fire we’ve ever responded to and it wasn’t the first big fire we had, but it’s one that won’t be forgotten for a long time,” fire chief Bill Crossman said. “I’ve been involved in all the major fires in Amherst the last 38 years and we’ve had some dandies.”
Crossman said the fire has led to several changes in both building and fire inspections in that inspectors are more diligent with their inspections and making sure property owners notify the fire department when doing renovations.
“Had the holes that were in the firewall had been properly done the fire wouldn’t have extended the way it did,” he said. “Over the years with several renovations people don’t always call and things get overlooked.”
The nooks and crannies of the century-old building made fighting the fire nearly impossible.
Also in buildings that have sprinkler systems, the pre-planning process includes identifying where the main supply valve is.
“That’s going to take a while GPSing all those valves. That will help a lot because at one point in the fire the sprinkler system was doing nothing but flooding the basement,” Crossman said. “There was 10 inches of water going into the basement that we could have used to fight the fire and we had to get water trucked in.”
Looking back, Crossman is still impressed of how his department responded and the assistance the Amherst firefighters received from neighbouring departments from both sides of the provincial border.
“Without their help it could’ve been a lot worse,” Crossman said.
The fire also resulted in a quick evacuation and relocation of the Amherst Police Department. The department knew it would be leaving its quarters on Victoria Street, but the fire moved that forward by months.
After evacuating in the middle of the night, the department spent several weeks at the Amherst Fire Department before moving into its new temporary home on the top floor of the Four Fathers Memorial Library.
Even after the department moved into its present location, Naylor said it took several more months before it could consider itself settled. Extensive renovations included new bathrooms and interview rooms.
“It has been a yearlong process. We’re just now hitting our comfort zone and we’re not done yet. Our guys still don’t have a proper gym and there still a few other things we’re still working on,” acting chief Ian Naylor said.
Naylor said the work of the department’s officers during the fire and in the days and months after was nothing short of amazing.
“They continued to protect and serve through the entire period of the fire and we’ve all gone through a lot,” Naylor said. “What was amazing was the support we got from staff, the fire department, town staff, the RCMP who has allowed us to use their cells, the province who provided surplus furniture, the library staff and members of the community.”
The town is still in the process of deciding on where to permanently locate the police department.
The owner of Duncan’s Pub, Jeff Bembridge, was in Las Vegas when the fire occurred. He got a text on his cellphone from a friend asking how things were at Duncan’s Pub. It was then that he found about the fire.
“My guts were knotted for quite a bit after that,” Bembridge said. “We had a lot of smoke damage and it cost be about $20,000 in product and sales. What bothers me still is that someone down the street has a fire and I lose the money. Why doesn’t the insurance company cover my loss as well.”
Bembridge said his insurer said he was under-insured.
Duncan’s was closed for 10 days after the fire.
One of the positives that came out of the fire has been Bembridge’s redevelopment of the former police department into a new breakfast restaurant.
“It all worked out in the end. There were some things that bothered me but we still have a building. It could’ve been a lot worse,” he said.
The owner of the Windsor and Black Block buildings has proposed building a new 40-unit apartment complex on the property, but the project has been delayed and the town recently moved to fill the hole that was created by the fire.
The fire destroyed the Dooly’s lounge in the ground floor. It opened in a newly renovated facility just up the street in October.
It also put local support agencies to the test with Community Services, the Salvation Army and Canadian Red Cross responding to support those displaced by the blaze. Red Cross officials said the fire showed the need for more volunteers in the community and a recruiting effort after the blaze saw a number of new volunteers signed up and trained.
The Salvation Army, thanks to the Amherst Centre Mall, was able to set up an outlet for fire victims to collect clothing and other items to help rebuild their lives and most were resettled in other apartments within weeks of the fire.