Nova Scotia

Fire destroys most of century-old Amherst building

A 100-year-old building in Amherst, N.S., has been mostly destroyed by a Saturday night fire. Two businesses have been impacted.

Two businesses, a storage company and fabric seller, have been impacted

An Amherst firefighter pours water onto a fire that destroyed a major portion of a downtown Amherst building overnight on Sept.19, 2020. (Tom McCoag / Town of Amherst)

A major fire in Amherst, N.S., has destroyed more than 100 years of history in a building that housed two local businesses.

Fire Chief Greg Jones said their Amherst department got the call shortly after 10:30 p.m. Saturday, according to a town release.

When they arrived on scene, smoke was beginning to come out of the eaves of the structure and from the doors on the lower level in the U-shaped building that takes up most of the block bounded by Crescent Avenue, Douglas Avenue, Abbot Street and Station Street.

Initially, Jones said they sent a crew inside in the hopes they could make an aggressive attack, but the fire progressed quickly to the point where that was not possible since the blaze had started rolling inside the building.

The crew was pulled out and instead firefighters proceeded with a defensive attack, Jones said.

Firefighters pour water onto a blaze that destroyed much of a downtown Amherst building on Sept.19, 2020. (Blake Daley)

Flames shot 20 metres into the air and lit up the night sky from the building that housed both Easy Storage and a second business operated by James Austin. 

Blake Daley stood and watched the blaze from the street tear through the building he worked in for 30 years, and owned just as his father did before him.

"You could see the sky was ablaze, kind of a frightening thing," he said.

Building was more than 100 years old

Daley said the structure was a collection of five buildings knitted together, including a 19th-century brick building that was home to the Amherst Boot and Shoe Company.

After it went out of business in the 1920s, Daley said the building changed hands until his father bought it for an appliance manufacturing and then buy-and-sell business. When Daley took over, they focused on creating licence plates, then he sold the building as well.

The fire is a setback for the four-storey James Austin business, which Daley said is a wholesale fabrics seller that was "thriving."

There were also more than 50 units in the storage business, meaning dozens of "personal tragedies" there for people who lost their valuables, Daley said.

Three aerial trucks from Amherst, Springhill, and Sackville, N.B., poured thousands of litres of water on the structure from three different sides of the building in attempts to save it. 

Aerial trucks pour water onto a fire in downtown Amherst than began late on Sept.19, 2020 and destroyed much of a building. (Blake Daley)

A "major portion" of the building was destroyed, the town said.

Jones said they considered evacuating nearby buildings between midnight and 1 a.m. Sunday, but decided against it due to changing fire conditions.

Some people did leave on their own and found somewhere else to stay the night.

At about 3 a.m., an excavator was brought in to bring down walls and help firefighters better access the fire. It remained on the scene past 8 a.m., moving debris to get at the flames.

Jones said their biggest issue in fighting the blaze was its type of construction, since the old timber caused them more work to get at the fire. 

Smoke could still be seen billowing high into the air on Sunday, and the downtown smelled like smoke.

Several downtown streets were blocked off as firefighters battled the blaze. Jones said the closures would likely continue for most of Sunday as he expected the firefighters would be on scene for most of the day.

With files from Blair Sanderson

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