Fire destroys Elmwood community centre

A massive fire has left a Winnipeg neighbourhood without its community centre, a daycare without a home, and residents devastated.
A fire at a Winnipeg community centre caused $1 million in damages. 1:44

A massive fire has left a Winnipeg neighbourhood without its community centre, a daycare without a home, and residents devastated.

The East Elmwood Community Centre was destroyed by flames that blew out the windows, collapsed the roof and left a gutted shell on Wednesday.

Firefighters battled for seven hours to finally extinguish the blaze that initially raged out of control and then stubbornly refused to go out — flaring up again even after having five hours' worth of water poured into it.

The fire in the centre, at 927 Beach Ave., was first spotted by a passing police officer just after 4 a.m. Before long heavy, black smoke and ashes blanketed the neighbourhood and forced the evacuation of 12 homes.  

When the fire seemed to be extinguished at about 9:30 a.m., the flames flared back, shooting through the vacant space where the roof was once and the space that used to house a daycare.

By noon, the site was still smouldering and crews remained on the scene trying to finally douse it once and for all. The arson strike force is investigating to find the cause.

"This is just sad, this is just sad," said Chris Getty, who is on the community centre's board of directors, as she watched fire crews on an aerial ladder pour water into the building's shell, in an area that was once the kitchen.

She said the board must now focus on plans for rebuilding the centre for the kids in the neighbourhood.

"They need somewhere to go. And this will be it, one way or another we'll just have to rebuild," she said.

'Such a shame'

The director of the daycare was busy throughout the morning calling parents to let them know that service would not be possible. 

The smoke and ash in the air also prompted officials to cancel classes at nearby Kent Road School, as well services at a daycare inside the school.

The community centre had recently been renovated and was preparing a spring campaign to attract more people, according to CBC News reporter Meaghan Ketcheson, who said the centre's outdoor rink was busy with a number of kids skating Tuesday night.

Les Getty, the centre's caretaker and the husband of Chris Getty, said he was stunned when he got a call from one of the daycare workers telling him about the fire.

"I don't know what to say. I've put so much work into this community centre. It's just such a shame," he said, adding the facility is critical to the neighbourhood and will be a tough loss.

"It's a low-income area and it's important for kids to have some place to hang out," he said, noting about 30 kids attended every night, skating and particpating in youth drop-in programs.

Starting to rebound

After years of being underused, the centre was starting to rebound, Getty said.

"We were just starting to rebuild the place and put it back on the map."

He and his wife worked to get more programs up and running just a few years ago.

"Every time we would come — and we would come at – 34 C below just to check to see — and there'd be a couple die-hards out there on the ice. And we just kept saying, there's two kids that are off the street," Chris Getty said.

Area resident Samantha Dignard said her kids have used and worked at the centre for years — and the programs offered there were embraced by the neighbourhood.

"They've ran different activies out of there every night. They had a Halloween haunted house out of there for the children and my kids look forward to that every year, so it means a lot to lose it," she said.

Dignard, who was forced to evacuate her house, said she has no idea when she will be able to return. She said her home smells strongly of smoke throughout.

Daycare call centre

About 40 families used the daycare in the centre and some parents showed up with their children on Wednesday, unaware a fire had been burning for several hours.

"A lot of children were actually in tears 'cause they had arrived at the centre and were worried that staff were inside. It's been a very emotional few hours," said Christina Bell, who ran the daycare, which just moved into the centre last summer.

She doesn't know where the children will go now or what will happen to the center's seven staff.

In the meantime, Bell is setting up a call centre at nearby George V School so parents have a place to bring their children during lunch and after school on Wednesday.