'It's all gone': Inferno destroys Winnipeg warehouse loaded with artists' studios

Winnipeg's arts community has been staggered by an inferno that destroyed a warehouse containing numerous studios and decades of work.

'It’s catastrophic for all of us. Some people actually lost 40 years’ worth of artwork'

Fire consumed a warehouse on Jarvis Avenue in Winnipeg's North End on Monday. (City of Winnipeg (left), Warren Kay/CBC (right))

Winnipeg's arts community has been staggered by an inferno on Monday that destroyed a warehouse containing numerous studios and decades of work.

The building at 274 Jarvis Ave. in the city's North End housed the studios of some of the city's most distinguished artists, many of them renowned internationally.

"It's catastrophic for all of us. Some of us lost our livelihoods," said Keith Oliver, who designs and builds custom furniture.

"Some people actually lost 40 years' worth of artwork, so their entire inventory, all of their work. It's all gone up in smoke and ashes."

Performance artist Shawna Dempsey rehearses with a costume that is among the materials she lost in Monday's fire. (Submitted by Shawna Dempsey)

Oliver, who was also the manager of the studios, which took up about 16,000 square feet of space in the 83,000-square-foot warehouse, had been up since being jolted awake by a 2 a.m. phone call about the blaze.

He has spoken with many of the artists to deliver the bad news "and they're all, obviously, distraught," he said.

"We're still kind of all in shock. We sort of still don't believe it."

Among the artists who rented space are Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan, who have toured and performed worldwide.

Dempsey said 27 artists had spaces inside the three-storey warehouse, which occupied the length of an entire city block.

An image of the building from Google Street View in 2018. (Google Street View)

"I think each of us, in our minds, are going through a list of things that we have lost. It's unspeakable, it's almost without end," she said, listing off costumes, posters, film negatives as well as thousands of copies of books and other publications they've made over the years.

"For Lorri and I … we're at a stage in our lives where we might hope for a retrospective of all of our work. Well, that can't happen now because the work is gone."

Myron Schultz, who owns a business directly across Jarvis from the warehouse, said there were also "some very high-value cars" stored on the main level.

By the time the sun came up on Monday, all of that was among the rubble in a void where the building once stood. There was nothing left of the warehouse but some skeletal exterior walls.

A car sits crushed under the weight of collapsed bricks next to the warehouse that burned. (Warren Kay/CBC)

"Basically, the building's collapsed into the basement, so it's all gone," Oliver said, adding none of the artists had insurance and all the tools have melted.

"I don't know what to say, it's bad news."

The artists lost more than their work.

"We had a really nice sense of community. We all interacted, talked to each other. The community part of it was very important and now it's gone," Oliver said.

"Sixteen thousand square feet of space is pretty hard to replace. We'll all have to split up and go various different places."

The air remains smoky around parts of Winnipeg due to the warehouse fire. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Dempsey also lamented the loss of the community, what she calls the "brain hive", as artists with different skill sets relied on one another overcome obstacles in their creations.

"And also emotional support, because being an artist is a very marginal way to make a living. It's a culture and we're all quite close knit," she said.

"It's like losing a part of yourself."

The landlord was hoping to expand the studio spaces and bring in more artists, so it's also a loss for those who thought they had finally found space, Oliver said, noting there is a dearth of available studios in Winnipeg.

Emergency crews rushed to the warehouse just before 1 a.m., evacuating nearby homes as thick, dark smoke shrouded the area and burning embers floated dangerously close to other properties.

Towers of smoke could be seen a long distance away, with numerous posts on social media by people living in neighbourhoods across the Red River from the fire.

Fire consumed a warehouse on Jarvis Avenue in Winnipeg's North End on Monday. (City of Winnipeg)

"Massive smoke plume, covering almost all of Elmwood at the moment. It's big enough it looks like a thunderstorm cloud," Michael McGregor wrote on the East Kildonan & Elmwood Community Facebook page.

Flames could be seen reaching through the broken windows and far above the roofline of the warehouse, which spanned the length of Schultz Street, between Jarvis and Sutherland avenues.

Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service Chief John Lane said crews first fought the flames from inside but after 30 minutes, "the smoke and heat conditions were becoming intolerable," so they retreated outside.

Just before 3 a.m. the south part of the building collapsed. The flames, fed by the rush of oxygen, roared quickly through the rest of the building, much of which began to collapse in the hours after that.

At one point, embers landed on the roof of an adjacent business and ignited a fire that crews noticed and quickly extinguished, Lane said.

The only report of any injury is to a firefighter who slipped and fell. It was a minor injury and the firefighter continued working, Lane said.

The flames were mostly extinguished by 7 a.m. but smoke from the smouldering ruins of the building continued to drift across Winnipeg, prompting warnings from the city.

Assistant Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Chief Mark Reshaur says the building has collapsed inwards on itself creating a number of hazards, and will have to be torn down. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Assistant chief Mark Reshaur said Monday afternoon there is no word yet on damage estimates.

"The fire has remained burning throughout the day," Reshaur said standing in front of the charred remains. "For us to finish extinguishing this fire, we've had to bring in heavy equipment,"

The entire structure will be demolished, which will also allow crews to expose any remaining hot spots.

People in the line of the smoke are advised to keep their windows closed while drivers are cautioned the smoke could impact visibility.

There's little left of the warehouse where Monday's blaze took place. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Power is also out in the neighbourhood, cut because of the danger of the collapsing walls hitting power lines, Lane said.

As well, streets remain closed, including Jarvis just east of Charles Street and Sutherland west of Main Street.

People are urged to avoid the area, although those who were forced out of their homes have since been allowed to return.

Robert Larkin, who lives on Habitat Place across from the warehouse, was woken around 3 a.m. by firefighters pounding on the door, telling him to get out.

"As soon as I looked through the window, you could see the flames. They were high at that time already," he said, estimating they went up to 10 metres above the building's chimney.

Fire chief John Lane expects it to be a long time until a cause of the fire is determined, if one is determined at all. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Schultz first heard about the fire while driving to work.

"I knew that was right by us, so it sends a little chill," he said.

"But other than that, the business itself is fine, and we'll manage not operating for half a day or a day [due to the power outage]."

The work by firefighters, investigators and demolition crews will mean streets in the area will be affected for a while. Lane expects firefighting operations to last the next couple of days as crews control hot spots.

"It'll be a long time before any cause becomes apparent," Lane said.

"Investigation on a complete conflagration like this is very, very difficult."

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Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

With files from Ahmar Khan


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