A massive fire in Ottawa's Chinatown neighbourhood Thursday morning forced about 140 people to flee and has left 31 homeless.

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The fire, which started before 3:30 a.m., was still spewing plumes of smoke by mid-morning. ((CBC))

Firefighters were called to five burning buildings near Somerset West and Booth streets around 3:30 a.m. ET, said Jim Corrigan, the acting platoon chief for the Ottawa Fire Department.

More than 60 firefighters battled the multi-storey flames and dense smoke billowing out of the four-alarm blaze.

"I would say it's probably close to the biggest one this year," Corrigan said mid-morning, when the fire was under control but still smouldering.

Paramedics treated one person and three cats for minor respiratory problems at the scene, the Ottawa Paramedic Service said in a news release. One firefighter was sent to hospital for a knee injury.

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More than 60 firefighters fought the blaze. One firefighter was sent to hospital for a knee injury. ((CBC))

By 7:30 a.m., half of one building had already collapsed, the CBC's Rob Thomas reported from the scene.

"The other half is a facade just hanging — I mean, it's on the verge of completely falling in on itself as well," he said at the time.

"There's mist from the water cannons that they're still spraying at this fire with flames popping up, billowing smoke and water and ash just streaming down Somerset Street."

Hours later, that building had been completely razed, and firefighters were watching a second that was believed to be on the verge of collapse.

By that point, the fire destroyed about 30 apartments, a pizzeria, a pool hall, and Asian and Caribbean grocery stores.

Police shut down an area bounded by Preston, Scott, LeBreton and Eccles streets and both the fire department and the Ottawa police arson squad were investigating, as is standard for a blaze of this magnitude, Corrigan said.

Booth between Gladstone Avenue and Albert Street, as well as Somerset between Preston Street and Bronson Avenue,were expected to remain closed until noon Friday, said a City of Ottawa news release.

Those who fled the fire are taking temporary residence at the Lord Elgin Hotel, the Red Cross and Salvation Army told CBC News, although a few people remained outside for most of the morning.

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Derick Wicks fled the fire with his wife and young son. He hopes to go back inside his heavily damaged apartment to search for a licence he needs for work. ((CBC))

One of them was Derick Wicks, who escaped with his wife and young son after coming outside and seeing the building next door engulfed by flames several stories high.

"I have nothing left. Thousands of dollars worth of stuff, memories, pictures — [my] whole life is gone," said Wicks.

"They let my cat out in the street and I've been looking for her all day," he added.

He said he was hoping to be able to go back into the heavily damaged building to look for a licence that he can't work without.

Two years ago, just across the street, a fire at the Mekong Grocery killed five members of the Thach family.