Nfld. & Labrador

Massive fire destroys Bay de Verde fish plant

A fire at a fish plant in Bay de Verde that caused the evacuation of part of the eastern Newfoundland fishing community is out, but crews continue to keep a close eye out for hot spots.

State of emergency lifted and some people have returned to their homes

Quinlan Brothers fish plant in Bay de Verde went up in smoke Monday, leaving hundreds without work 1:56

A fire at a fish plant in Bay de Verde that caused the evacuation of part of the eastern Newfoundland fishing community is out, but crews continue to keep a close eye out for hot spots.

Mayor Gerard Murphy announced on Monday evening that the state of emergency had been lifted. 

He was optimistic that people might be able to return to their homes Monday night and a few did. 

"The saving grace here … is that there has been no injury, and no loss of life," he said.

The CBC's Terry Roberts spoke to the town's mayor about the fire at the fishplant and the town's emergency plans. 0:56

A town official said the fire burned through the entire Quinlan Brothers plant, from the west to the east end. 

The smoke was so intense that it could be seen in satellite imagery. 

Fire crews from as far away as Bay Roberts, more than 90 kilometres south of Bay de Verde, were dispatched to the community on Monday.

In all, eight different fire departments helped battle the blaze throughout the day.

"They managed to contain the fire. It did not get outside the confines of the facility and to my knowledge there has been … no injuries reported and no loss of life." said Murphy.

CBC reporter Terry Roberts talked to some of the people affected by today's fire. 1:17

Hundreds of people in the harbour section of the town were forced to evacuate their homes early Monday morning.

It's the first time Bay de Verde has had to use its emergency plan, and Murphy said it went smoothly.

Many of those forced out of the area are at the local elementary school or staying with relatives. 

"Half of the [southern section of the community] has been evacuated, our emergency plan has been initiated and I have declared a state of emergency," said Murphy.

He said southerly winds were gusting 40 to 60 km/h, and the "extremely large" ammonia tank in the facility was the biggest worry.

By 9 a.m., Murphy said he had asked the responding fire departments to retreat from the blaze, noting it was too dangerous.

But firefighters continued fighting the flames despite the mayor's request. 

"At one point I suggested the proximity of the fireman was a bit too hazardous, however I would not interfere with how they conducted the operations this morning," he said. 

Murphy added that fears about the toxicity of fumes from ammonia and propane tanks was the main concern.

A fire burns at the Quinlan Brothers fish plant in Bay de Verde, N.L., where about 700 people work during peak season. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

He said a pressure release valve on the ammonia tank was released, but there's no way to tell how much remained inside.

People went door to door checking to ensure everyone who needed to get out was notified, Murphy said.

The town had requested a provincial water bomber aircraft to respond, but Murphy said that wasn't possible because the planes are not yet operational for the season.

There are 700 plant workers during peak season, he said.

One of those workers is Wanda Riggs, who was emotional when she spoke with CBC News about the fire.

"I just can't believe what's happening here today, like it's going to be total devastation for everybody in Bay de Verde," said Riggs, whose husband also works at the fish plant.

Riggs added there are more than 40 temporary foreign workers at the plant who are also unsure of their future.

"People are just going to lose everything they have. I don't know what's going to happen."

Quinlan Brothers has not commented, but a company official told CBC News it is "co-ordinating a response."

'A lot of smoke and a lot of fire'

Gerard Broderick, a town councillor who works at the fish plant and who had been on the scene since around 6:30 a.m., said the fire appeared to start in the west end of the plant and spread to the middle section.

"There's a lot of smoke and a lot of fire," said Broderick.

"All power has been shut off in the community and you can't get into Bay de Verde now."

A security staff member is on duty round the clock, and Broderick said the woman on duty noticed smoke early Monday morning.

"Where she was in her office down there, when she went out in the lunch room, it was filled with smoke. 

"She called it in to the fire department and shortly after that she said she heard a bang, and it started from there," he said.

Referring to plant workers, he said, "This is not good. We have people here now from all over the island and there's not going to be any work. And we had a boat just off Bay de Verde waiting to come in with the crab … he's gone up the bay now."

Tricon Elementary School in Bay de Verde was used Monday as an emergency shelter station.

Principal Wendy Tizzard said the fire is "absolutely devastating" to her community.

"I'd say most of my kids' parents work in the plant, so it's going to be a hard blow for them all," she said.

Premier responds

Premier Dwight Ball says the province will do everything it can to help the people of Bay de Verde recover from the fire. (Katie Breen/CBC)

During question period on Monday in St. John's, Opposition leader Paul Davis asked Premier Dwight Ball what the province is going to do to help Bay de Verde.

"Our thoughts are with the people in Bay de Verde," said Ball. 

"I wanted to commend the local residents and the local fire departments and the neighbouring communities for the quick response and the work that they've done so far."

He said the province is already in contact with processors and members making a living at the plant, and they will do everything they can to help the town recover.

"This is very early in the season for them right now," he said.

"I can tell you right now that this government will do everything it can to make sure there's continuity both for the harvesting sector and for those that make a living in the processing plants in that community."

Flames billow from the Quinlan Brothers fish plant on Monday morning. (Brianna Barrett/Twitter)

With files from Terry Roberts and Jo-Ann Dooley

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