Winnipeg business owners in shock after losing everything in Kirkwood Block fire

People working in a cluster of small businesses in Winnipeg's West End aren't sure what the future holds after a fire gutted an historic building on Portage Avenue Wednesday.

Winnipeg to lose part of its history; building built in 1912

By Thursday, the Kirkwood Block building was encased in ice from firefighting efforts. (Meaghan Ketcheson/CBC)

Xinyu Shen remembers painting the store-front logs and applying the decorative and carefully selected wallpaper inside her West End Winnipeg small business by hand prior to its opening last September.

On Thursday, she stood across the street from her shop still in disbelief.

Not A Donut, a Japanese-styled doughnut shop on Langside Street, is one of a handful of local businesses that are now covered in ice after a fire ripped through the Kirkwood Block building starting around 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.

"I still cannot believe it happened. All of a sudden it's gone," Shen told CBC News. "We still are trying to figure out the next step."

She and her partner were discussing the flavours for next week's batch of mochi doughnuts, which are made from glutinous rice flour, when a customer alerted Shen and her partner of the fire via text message. They immediately headed to the building.

Winnipeg business owners in shock after Kirkwood Block fire

1 year ago
Duration 2:18
The Kirkwood Block building, at the corner of Langside Street and Portage Avenue in Winnipeg, went up in flames on Wednesday.

None of the owners have been allowed to enter their respective businesses as firefighters continued to douse pockets of fire within the building.

"Everything was in there. All of the equipment and the ingredients," Shen said.

She has already contacted her insurance provider to help with what will happen in the aftermath of the major blaze that has kept Portage Avenue closed between Memorial Boulevard to Sherbrook Street.

However she's still not sure how much it will cover, and wishes she understood her plan better since she never expected a situation like this to unfold.

Xinyu Shen is still in shock after her business was among a handful involved in the Kirkwood Block building fire on Wednesday. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Shen has also started the process of looking for new employment for her staff, whether that's at the other shop she has a stake in, Not A Waffle, or elsewhere.

"As long as we have each other no one is running away. We will just stick together and figure this out," she added.

Shen is trying to take things one day at time, but the loss of her "second home" is difficult to comprehend.

Xinyu Shen, owner of Not A Donut, looks toward the outside of her Winnipeg business on Thursday. The Kirkwood Block building, at the corner of Langside Street and Portage Avenue in Winnipeg, went up in flames on Wednesday. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

"I don't know what to do. Right now we are just trying to figure out how we should deal with this," Shen said. "I also feel really bad for the other shop owners."

In addition to Not A Donut, the Eben Convenience Store, the West End BIZ office and Lola's Beauty Gallery were among some of the other businesses that were affected.

The Ripperz, a Winnipeg band, practised in the basement of the building. The band stored its equipment and merchandise in the building.

Lola Omoniyi owns Lola's Beauty Gallery, two doors down from the Kirkwood Block. She was still feeling overwhelmed by what happened the day after the fire, but says messages of support from clients have helped to slightly numb the pain.

"A lot of people have been calling us to see if we have been affected by the fire and lots of people left messages," Omoniyi said. "It feels better. It is a comfort for us that people care about us."

She spent part of Wednesday calling people who had hair appointments to let them know they had to be postponed.

"We don't know when we're going to be able to start working there again," she added.

She isn't sure what the total loss will be until emergency personnel allow her and her four other staff members into the building, which was separated from the Kirkwood Block by an Indian restaurant. 

'Another part of our history'

John Bluethner wanted to see for himself the scale of the fire. His automotive shop is near the Kirkwood Block building so he popped over to have a look.

John Bluethner says it will be difficult to see the historic Kirkwood Block building be demolished. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

The building, which was built in 1912, added character to the area and will be missed. The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service said Thursday it will have to be demolished.

"It was something that'd been here for so long and had been a fixture in the neighbourhood. It's always a shame when those buildings go like that," Bluethner said.

As he looked toward the building, Bluethner said there's a large swath of emotions.

"You feel sorry for the people that had businesses there and thankful that nobody was hurt. Fires in winter I'm always amazed at our firefighters and the job they do," he said. "It's a hard job especially when it's –30."

"Once they tear it down that's another part of our history and our past is going to be torn away."

LISTEN | Kirkwood Block a significant part of the neighbourhood:

With files from Erin Brohman and Avi Jacob


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