Five local businesses are completely destroyed after a massive fire engulfed a stretch of Vancouver's Cambie Street early Thursday morning.
Fire crews were initially called to the scene at around 2 a.m. after receiving reports of visible smoke and flames coming from the back of a business in the street's 4000 block, near King Edward, said Vancouver Fire Rescue Services (VFRS) Capt. Jonathan Gormick.
Crews arrived to find smoke pouring from one of the businesses in the area. While firefighters managed to knock down that fire in their initial attack, flames had already spread into a common attic space that spanned across five businesses, meaning "the fire had to quickly be made a second and then a third alarm," Gormick explained.
The flames pushed VFRS crews onto the defensive, "which means we pull back, pull staff out of the building, and just protect the unburned properties on either side and try and cool what remains from the outside," he added.
About 50 VFRS staff were on scene at the fire's peak. Crews managed to get the blaze under control and extinguish any remaining hot spots by around 10 a.m., while that stretch of Cambie remained closed throughout the morning.
"The problem with going defensive is that the building starts to collapse, and creates voids where fires can persist," said Gormick. "We have to use a lot of water, typically from aerial devices, to get those cooled and extinguished."
No firefighters or members of the public were injured during the blaze, "which is pretty amazing considering the size of the incident," he said. Firefighters also managed to safely extract all animals that were present at a neighbouring cat boarding facility.
"It's not occupiable at the moment because there's firefighting operations still going on, but it was not affected by smoke or fire so they should be able to reoccupy that fairly quickly," Gormick added.
The five businesses that suffered catastrophic damage, meanwhile, "will most likely need to be torn down," he said.
"I can't see those buildings being salvageable."
Reports identify those businesses as a Pharmasave, the Copa Café, a medical clinic, YiFang Taiwan Fruit bubble tea, and a dry cleaners.
All five businesses were locally owned, said Rania Hatz, executive director of the Cambie Village Business Association. "They were all small businesses."
Those businesses have suffered "total devastation," said Hatz, reached by phone as she was on her way to the site of the blaze.
"Some of them haven't had many years of being in business," she added. "When you start a business in Vancouver, you already have the challenges of paying rent and other expenses to set up, well in advance of starting your business, and then you hope to recoup those and make your profit over the next few years.
"Some of these businesses are in the stage where they never recouped those initial investments, and that's something that never gets covered by insurance or any other compensation. So you've completely devastated your investment, and it's really hard to get up and go again."
Anyone wondering how to help businesses impacted in the blaze should stay tuned to the Cambie Village Business Association's social media channels, said Hatz: "We will have a little bit of an announcement and summary tomorrow of what's going on."
Fortunately, most of the neighboring businesses on either side of the fire were somewhat protected and appear to have been minimally affected, said Gormick.
"There was no fire, and very little smoke got in," he said, adding that crew members managed to pressurize the inside of adjacent buildings with fans intended to keep smoke from seeping in.
"So hopefully, there's very limited, if any smoke damage," Gormick said. "There may be a bit of water damage; we used significant amounts of water to get this out. But if there is, it would likely be confined to the basement, and there weren't any visible signs of water flowing out of the front doors, which is something we sometimes see when we use large amounts of water."
The fire is one of the largest that VFRS crews have dealt with this year.
"By the time something in Vancouver escalates to a third alarm, that's a sizable incident," he said. "We're fortunate that we're a dense city and fire halls tend to be close to anywhere they're going, so it's not often that a fire can spread this quickly without being knocked down first, but just the combination of these adjoint businesses with a common cockloft and some renovations done over the time just made the perfect recipe for fire spread."
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, while the east side of the street will remain closed, "so we can have units on-scene while the fire investigator works," said Gormick. "But the sidewalk is closed for safety reasons as well, because it's considered part of the collapse zone.
"If that building were to come down, it might come down on the sidewalk, and we can't have members of the public there."
Gormick thanked Vancouverites for their cooperation while that section of Cambie Street remained closed during the busy morning hours. "We recognize this caused a significant impact on commuter traffic and traffic for people that live and work in the area, and we sincerely regret that but we appreciate being given the space to work safely," he said.
Units are being released from third alarm 4000blk Cambie. King Edward to open single lanes shortly & Cambie alternating lanes possibly by noon. East lanes & sidewalk on Cambie will remain closed. pic.twitter.com/6M5GXmscJ7— Vancouver Fire Rescue Services (@VanFireRescue) October 15, 2020