Canadian Underwriter

‘Raging’ fire at Newfoundland fish plant forces evacuation, guts town’s economy

April 11, 2016   by Sue Bailey - THE CANADIAN PRESS

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BAY DE VERDE, N.L. – A small Newfoundland town declared a state of emergency Monday after a massive fire swept through a fish plant, dealing a devastating economic blow that will be felt as far away as Thailand.

Bay de Verde Mayor Gerard Murphy declared a state of emergency on Monday morning. Photo: @TRobertst

Bay de Verde Mayor Gerard Murphy declared a state of emergency on Monday morning. Photo: @TRobertst

Gerard Murphy, mayor of Bay de Verde, invoked the emergency plan sometime after 6 a.m. when he was alerted to the fire at the Quinlan Brothers plant by a firefighter who came to his door.

When he made his way down the road to a view overlooking the decades-old plant, he said he saw the sprawling plant engulfed in black smoke and flames.

“At first glance I said, ‘It’s going to be a disaster,” he said in an interview from his town council office. “It was the amount of billowing smoke and flames that were visible…It’s a very difficult situation.”

Hundreds of people were forced out of their homes. Murphy said several fire departments tried to contain the blaze, but were battling strong winds that were gusting up to 60 kilometres an hour and fuelling the fire.

Town clerk Tara North said the fire appeared to start in the west end of the long building that stretches along the harbour’s shoreline, and spread to the other end. She said at least five volunteer fire departments worked the fire, but the plant was ruined.

“The building is basically gone,” she said, adding that it wasn’t clear what caused the fire. “They’re trying to put it out.”

The RCMP says there have not been any reports of injuries. No one from Quinlan Brothers was available for comment.

There were concerns a large ammonia tank on the site could further fuel the fire, but Murphy said much of its contents had been released into the air.

“We are looking at a tremendous loss,” he said. “You have approximately 700 seasonal jobs lost and the work of a company that took 50 plus years to build up.”

Murphy said the blaze at the crab, shrimp and groundfish plant could be a devastating blow to the area, with the possible loss of 700 seasonal jobs. He said about 60 residents of Bay de Verde work at the plant, but that people travel from nearby communities and across the province for jobs there.

A crew of foreign workers from Thailand had also just arrived to work at the plant.

Thanakit Ruangcharoen, 30, arrived this month with 42 other workers who were to start Tuesday. They have come for seasonal jobs with Quinlan for years, he said.

Cash earned every summer is vital to those workers and their families back in Thailand, he said.

“We are very concerned.”

Wanda Riggs, who watched the plant burn to the ground from her home atop a hill above the harbour, said the loss could mean the end of both her and her husband’s incomes.

She works as a general labourer in the crab processing plant and had put in just one three-hour shift over the weekend before the season was to ramp up next week.

The 49-year-old mother of two adult children said she watched a boat with a load of crab turn away from the dock early Monday as the plant burned nearby.

“By this time next week, it would have been in full force with 700 workers employed,” said Riggs, who grew up in Bay de Verde and has worked at the plant for more than 30 years. “So it’s very, very devastating here.”

She said many of her relatives also work at the plant, which generated revenue for many businesses in the seaside community.

“It’s not only going to affect the people employed at the plant – it’s going to affect stores, garages,” she said. “Everything was centred around employment at the plant.”

Jessica Doyle, 26, said she has worked at the plant on and off since she was a teenager. Many local residents recently laid off from well-paid jobs in Alberta’s oil sector had hoped to find work there this summer, she said.

“And now this.”

Natasha Carvalhal, 27, is one of them. She worked in Lloydminster, Alta., for the last nine years but is back home in Bay de Verde since oil prices crashed.

“I just can’t believe this,” she said as the last of the plant burned behind her.

“Now I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Murphy said people who were forced out of their homes were being housed at the local school and Lions club, as well as in the neighbouring community of Old Perlican.

Wendy Tizzard, principal of nearby Tricon Elementary School, said about 70 people evacuated from their homes are now staying there.

Local residents have brought food and juice, and there have been many offers of help – including from outside the province, she said.

It wasn’t clear by mid-afternoon if residents would be able to return to their homes as the fire appeared to be burning out.

– With files from Alison Auld in Halifax