Fire destroys major portion of century-old downtown building in Amherst, N.S.

A fire, which began late Saturday night in downtown Amherst, N.S., has destroyed the majority of a century-old building. Despite the efforts of 105 firefighters from seven different departments, the building, which contained two businesses, couldn’t be saved.

“The call came in shortly after 10:30 p.m.,” says Amherst Fire Department Chief Greg Jones. “When we arrived on the scene, smoke was starting to come out of the eaves of the structure and from the doors on the lower level.”

Initially, the department sent a crew inside the structure to battle the fire in the U-shaped building, which sits on a major portion of a block bounded by Crescent Avenue, Douglas Avenue, Abbot Street and Station Street.

“We sent the crew in to see if we could make an aggressive attack on it,” says Jones. “Unfortunately, the fire had progressed to a point where that was not possible because the fire had started rolling inside the building. We could see it happening through the windows.”

As a result, the crew was pulled out and “we proceeded with a defensive attack,” adds Jones.

According to a release issued by the town of Amherst, flames, shot 20 metres into the air, lit the night sky from the building that housed Easy Storage and a second business operated by James Austin. Dense smoke that rose several more metres into the sky could be seen from several blocks away.

Three aerial trucks, from Amherst, Springhill and Sackville, N.B., poured thousands of litres of water on the structure from three different sides of the building. Crews manning the ten other pieces of apparatus also poured water into the structure from all sides of the building.

Despite the water that was poured onto the fire, it was ineffectual. At times, mini explosions could be heard coming from the building as flames shot out several metres from windows and doors.

Firefighters also had to be cautious as the roof and walls of the structure began collapsing. At one point, the Amherst department had just moved its aerial ladder, located at the back of the building, when a wall collapsed.

“We’ve had great support from our mutual aid partners in battling the fire,” says Jones, noting Amherst firefighters received aid from the Sackville, N.B., Springhill, Leicester, Pointe du Bute, N.B, River Hebert and Trumanville fire departments. Emergency Health Services paramedics were also on standby and a Nova Scotia Power crew shut off electricity to the area.

Firefighters also spent a great deal of effort pouring water onto a part of the building where there was an internal firewall. Their efforts weren’t in vain as they prevented the fire from reaching other areas of the structure.

Between midnight and 1 a.m., Jones contemplated ordering an evacuation of nearby buildings; however, conditions changed, prompting him to hold off.

“We did do a notice-walk in which we advised people that if they had to get out of their homes, they could call the Red Cross for assistance,” says Jones said. “Those that did leave on their own found their own housing for the night.”

At about 3 a.m., an excavator was brought in to bring down walls and to make access to the flames easier for the firefighters. The excavator was still on the scene at 8 a.m., moving debris to get at the flames, which were still burning. Smoke could still be seen billowing high into the air, and the downtown smelled like smoke.

“The biggest issue we had in fighting this fire was its type of construction,” says Jones. “Its old timber construction caused us more work to get at the fire. That’s why we brought in the excavator. It opened the building up a bit. We’re now getting better access to the fire.”

Several downtown streets were blocked off as firefighters battled the blaze. The chief expects those closures to continue for most of Sunday and suspects firefighters will be “on the scene for most of the day.”