Low water supply, fiery debris: Crews battle blaze at Pembina Highway building under construction

A major fire that broke out in an apartment building under construction in Winnipeg early Saturday morning has shut down parts on Pembina Highway.

'An absolute miracle' no firefighters hurt in blaze, says union president

Area "the size of Brandon" has no fire station says councillor (Travis Golby/CBC)

A major fire that broke out in an apartment building under construction in Winnipeg early Saturday morning was still burning into the afternoon.

Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service assistant chief Ihor Holowczynsky said the crews responded to the blaze in the 16-storey Pembina Highway structure around 12:30 a.m. A second alarm was sounded to bolster the number of crews and vehicles on the scene because of the potential for hazards with a high-rise structure.

Holowczynsky said fire crews tried to enter the building to launch an offensive attack — but because the apartment is still under construction, the fire protection systems that crews rely on were not yet complete.

"We had to retreat and go into a defensive operation, which meant setting up aerial ladders and fighting the fire from the street," he said.

Holowczynsky said fighting a fire in an active construction site is a difficult job. In this case, the standpipes to which fire hoses are attached could only supply water up to the seventh floor; and the ladders only reached up to around the ninth floor.

"It's not ideal conditions, because there is no lighting, the stairwells are dark," he said. "And then, of course, water supply is the main issue. If you can't get water up to the roof, then there's no point in trying to fight it from that position. So we had to reassess."

Saturday morning, crews were still waiting on a drone to see how much of the rooftop fire was still active. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Two nearby residential buildings were evacuated as a precaution.

Kerner Pieterse, who lives in one of them, said he was awoken by the sound of fire alarms outside around 1 a.m. A knock on the door followed. It was the police, telling him he and his girlfriend, Danielle, had to get out.

"We just got ready, put some jackets on. We didn't really know what was happening at that point," Pieterse said.

See Kerner Pieterse's video of the fire:

Kerner Pieterse, a resident of a nearby building, took this video of a blaze at a 16-storey apartment block under construction on Pembina Highway at Bison Drive in the early hours of Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019. 0:15

Pieterse said they grabbed their corgi, Nubi, and their car keys and headed downstairs, still half asleep.

"As we walked outside, we turned to look and the building next door, the top floor was on fire. So at that moment it kind of just sunk in that this is real, it's not just a drill or someone whose stove was left on or something," he said. "It was definitely scary."

Cause under investigation

Alex Forrest, who heads up the firefighters' union, said the wind also made it harder to extinguish the blaze because it blew fiery debris off the building.

"It was an absolute miracle that there were no firefighters that were hurt," said the president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg. 

Forrest said the debris was creating additional spot fires that needed to be put out as crews kept fighting the original blaze.

"Many of the firefighters told me this was one of the most dangerous fires that they had fought," he said.

Assistant fire chief Holowczynsky said it's too early to speculate on what started the fire, and that the cause is still under investigation.

With the fire on the rooftop still not extinguished by the afternoon, crews were waiting on the fire department's drone to be recharged so they can get a better view of how much is left burning, he said.

"I think the plan is now just to wait it out until we get an engineering assessment on the safety, because the construction pieces were affected by fire," Holowczynsky said Saturday morning.

The company behind the development said the 16-storey building, near the University of Manitoba, is intended to be a student residence.

"We are thankful that no one was injured as a result of the incident. We'd like to thank the fire department for their significant efforts to contain the fire," Ledcor spokesperson Katherine Coutinho said in a emailed statement on Saturday.

"We are working co-operatively with the fire department and Manitoba Workplace Safety and Health to determine the cause and assess the damages caused by the fire."

Southbound Pembina Highway was closed from Bison Drive to Dalhousie Drive Saturday morning while crews were on scene, but had been reopened by mid-afternoon.

Janice Lukes, a city councillor who has been a proponent of the complex, lives nearby and raced to the scene.

Lukes said firefighters told her there were large orange tarps that were on fire that blew off the building, and some scaffolding had fallen.

"There was another apartment block beside it that had to be evacuated because there was a very large crane — I don't know, the crane must be 19 storeys high — and it's right beside them attached to the building and there was concern that the crane may fall on the nearby apartment block."

She said there was also concern for a rail line that runs beside the building.

Student housing crunch

Lukes said the project is important because it will help alleviate a major housing crunch for the University of Manitoba. She said the campus is surrounded by small 1970s bungalows, many of which are divided up and rented to students as single rooms, which are sometimes in basements without windows.

The tower, she said, will house 570 people.

"It's just a landmark, it's an entry-point to the city of Winnipeg. It's just like a diamond even though there's nothing in it except the concrete floors and the light that the construction workers use, from a distance it just sparkles," she said.


  • An earlier version of this story indicated the building was 15 stories. In fact, the company behind the construction project later clarified it is a 16-storey building.
    Dec 21, 2019 4:31 PM CT

With files from The Canadian Press


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