Downtown Virden fire 'possibly suspicious': Fire chief

A blaze that destroyed three buildings and damaged a fourth in downtown Virden is being investigated as "suspicious," says the local fire chief.

Business owner 'devastated' after clothing store destroyed in fire

The clean up begins in Virden Monday after fire destroyed three buildings. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

A blaze that destroyed three buildings and damaged a fourth in downtown Virden is being investigated as "suspicious," says the local fire chief.

"It's under investigation," fire chief Brad Yochim said Monday. "Yes, it is possibly suspicious."

It was also the second fire in the same location within a few hours, he added.

Cleanup was underway on Monday in the western Manitoba town as people still come to terms with the loss of three heritage buildings in Virden's historic downtown.

Yochim said firefighters were called to one of the buildings on Friday night an found an electrical amplifier on fire. It was quickly extinguished and there was no actual fire in the building, he said, adding that the power was disconnected before firefighters left.

"Then at 5:43 the next morning we get called to smoke coming to the same building."

"This time it was in a totally different area of the building. It was in the basement. We were not able to access the basement because of the heavy smoke. So we ended up cutting a hole in the floor at the front of the building just inside the front door and trying to extinguish it from that point."

Christy Gabrielle's clothing store — which was planning on reopening in the near future — was destroyed in the blaze. 

"I'm in total shock," the single mother of four kids told CBC News in Virden on Monday. "I'm trying to wrap my mind around it … It doesn't make any sense to me."

Christy Gabrielle's clothing store was destroyed in a fire that destroyed three buildings in Virden's downtown on Saturday. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

Gabrielle said she was out of town when the fire broke out and heard about it when friends started sending her photos and videos over text message.

She said the insurance she had on the building won't fully cover the loss.

Gabrielle said had recently been awarded a heritage grant to renovate and restore the space and had spent about $60,000 so far.

At this point, she said all she wants is answers.

"I just hope the are able to find out what did happen and why," she said. "That's bothering me the most I think."

Yochim said finding answers might be tough.

"At this point … because of the degree of damage that's done, I don't think we'll ever find an actual cause."

Three buildings were destroyed by fire in Virden last week and the fire is now considered 'suspicious.' (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

Crews from the Wallace District Fire Department, including units from Virden and Elkhorn, spent hours battling the blaze, said Yochim, adding the first few hours were the hardest on firefighters.

"Once we found the fire and started applying water to it, it was already too far gone. It had gone up the walls and into the attic of the building. And once it had gone into the attic, in the common roof areas in the three buildings, we couldn't stop it."

Yochim said the only way to stop the fire was to bring in a track hoe and knock the building down. 

"Those buildings are 100 years old. And sometime over the last 100 years, whoever's owned the building over the years, in a couple of cases they breached the fire wall which helped to spread the fire."

On Monday, residents and onlookers watched as a front-end loader pushed the rubble off of the street. The smell of smoke was still pungent in the air.

"We're very attached to some of the buildings in this area." said Joan Veselovsky, a town resident. 

Fire at schoolhouse 

A former schoolhouse also burned near Virden on Sunday morning, and it was destroyed. Yochim said he doesn't believe the fires are related.

Virden Mayor Jeff McConnell said Sunday the town is still reeling from the fires and it's hard to say what the impact will be on the community of 3,300 and surrounding areas. 

"We're a long way away, yet, to figure out what the rebuilding process is going to be," he said. "The power's not even going to be back on necessarily to the rest of the block for the businesses that are left until later on this week."

Both McConnell and Yochim said they hope to see the buildings rebuilt.

Blaze destroys three buildings in Virden

5 years ago
Duration 2:05
A blaze that destroyed three buildings and damaged a fourth in downtown Virden is being investigated as "suspicious," says the local fire chief.


Riley Laychuk is CBC's reporter based in Brandon, covering rural Manitoba. Share your story ideas, tips and feedback:

With files from Elisha Dacey