Backdraft on Broadway: Narrow escape from Canada Day inferno


A rare fire emergency – caught in the nick of time by experienced firefighters – helped save a Broadway business fire from turning into a Canada Day inferno on Main.

Troy Cuvelier, fire chief for the Killarney-Turtle Mountain Fire Department, said he received a 911 callout to a fire at 1:29 p.m. that day, setting off the siren for the volunteer firemen to rush to the hall.

But the clues he and his fire crew discovered when they arrived at the Community Florist Jewellery and Gift in the early afternoon of July 1 pointed to a highly dangerous situation.

And it didn’t include a lot of fire – at that point. It was something much more insidious.

“We got the 911 page, and that’s never great on a holiday,” said Chief Cuvelier. “We knew the fire was fully involved. When got to the Broadway entrance, we could see brown puffing smoke seeping around the door. It was going in and out, like a dragon’s breath, or someone breathing. That’s when we knew the building was now basically in a backdraft situation.”

A backdraft is not something a fireman deals with too many times in his or her career, said the fire chief.

But he recognized the signs.

“It’s rare, but I have seen it a few times in my 24 years with the fire department,” said Cuvelier. “It was like a grenade in there. The superheated gases inside were looking for oxygen. The initial fire had gone out, because it had used all the available oxygen up, and the pressure from these built-up gases inside was actually pushing the doors out. Once those gases found fresh oxygen, they would explode. That’s when you get the ventilation in place.”

With only eight regular firemen available on the Canada Day holiday, Cuvelier had been forced to call out for backup.

“We were shorthanded,” he said. “We rang the siren twice for help, and everyone who can shows up. We called in our auxiliary members and ex-firefighters, volunteers, and two ex-chiefs. We also did a mass page; that’s an app called ‘Paging Unlimited,’ and it calls on any firefighters in the area to come and help. We needed them all. We were just very, very lucky that some of the guys were at the beach to set up for the Canada Day Water Soccer, otherwise it would have been a lot worse.”

Cuvelier organized two ‘Attack Teams’: one at the Broadway doors, and one at the two rear doors of the Florist premises, to deal with the backdraft and get the superheated smoke and gases out.

“There are two in each team, and they put ventilation fans in place,” he said. “But the double doors at the back weren’t secure, and they expanded outwards and sucked in oxygen. This spontaneously re-ignited the fire, and blew the doors right out.”

Owner of the business, Rick Pauls, said it was lucky no one was injured in the blast.

“If the front door had blown out, it would have knocked the firemen backwards across Broadway,” said Pauls, who got the fire call from his alarm company, and rushed to the scene.

“Instead, the fire blew out the rear door, taking the smoke with it. The firemen knocked in the front door, and immediately hosed the premises down. We’re lucky. All of Main Street could have gone up,” he said.

Manager of Community Florist, Jenny Beare, listened from a distance as the disaster unfolded on Broadway.

“I was in Winnipeg, and Janice (Smith) and Rick were watching it, and I was talking to them on the phone,” she said.

A section of Broadway Avenue had been closed off during the emergency, and hoses had been set up across the street for firefighters to battle the blaze.

But a few Canada-Day drivers chose to circumvent the blockades, creating great risk to the firemen, said the fire chief.

“People drove around the roadblocks, and over the two hoses, and one was a charged, high volume hose,” said Cuvelier. “We closed Main Street to protect our hoses. They are our lifeline in a fire. The water in those hoses keeps our firemen from burning up. It can be 1800 degrees Celsius or higher in there, and the water stream cools the air around them. Plus those hoses are expensive – around $500 – and they can be damaged if someone drives over them. We got the license plate number of one driver.”

Cuvelier said part of the crew remained on site until 10:45 that evening, until the scene was cleared.

Inside, the following day, the main section of the Florist’s was left a blackened, stinking mess of burnt and charred home décor, jewellery, and gifts.

The Fire Commissioner, who attended the scene on Canada Day, has since ruled it was caused by an electrical failure due to an old renovation, said the fire chief.

The failure occurred at the south wall that abuts the neighbouring Home Hardware store, just behind a display cabinet, said Pauls.

Inside, 100 per cent of the inventory has been declared a write-off, due to fire, smoke and water damage, he said.

In the north half of the store, less of the building was blackened, but havoc had still been wreaked.

Along the upper four feet of displays, glass gifts had melted and wood items torched, while just inches below them decorative candles remained perfect, with their plastic wrappers still intact.

Next door, co-owner of Home Hardware, Doug Toews, said he figured they got off lightly.

“There’s just a little bit of a smell of smoke upstairs in one storage room,” he said. “We just have a fan on, and some charcoal there to absorb the smell. Nothing really happened, and I’m happy. It all happened next door. It was Canada Day, and pretty much everybody on Main Street was closed. I’d say we got lucky.”

Pauls intends to move forward with the business at this point.

“We are working with our insurer to assess the scope of the damage,” he said on Wednesday morning, outside the blackened interior of the store’s rear entrance. “How do I feel? My blood pressure is up. Jen spent every day here for nine years. It’s pretty shocking.”

Florist manager Jenny Beare, clad in a plastic shower cap to keep the smoke taint from her hair, said she had opened the business on July 1 of 2008.

“I don’t know how I feel,” she said. “We keep telling ourselves that it’s only stuff. But this was the first Saturday that we have closed since I opened.”

In the shade of the building, bookkeeper Pat Turner was busy rifling through till receipts, some of them with darkened edges.

“The office for both the Blarney Stone and the Florist is located at the back, and that office didn’t actually burn,” she said. “It’s mostly smoke and water damage. We only had a few days’ takings to re-do, for both businesses, so that’s lucky for me.”

In the meantime, Beare said she was determined to keep the floristry side of the business’s flower shop blooming.

By Thursday she had set up her stall inside the Killarney Place mall, utilizing the Creative Kitchens cabinetry showcase area right across from Pauls’ Blarney Stone location.

“We are trucking ahead, and this won’t stop us,” said Beare. “We have moved temporarily to the kiosk there. Janice and I went to Winnipeg on Tuesday, and bought a new cooler for flowers, and it’s going to be in the mall there with us. It will be flowers only for us for the time being. We have a wedding this weekend, and that’s going ahead. We are still taking floral orders, and we are still on the Community Florist number, at 204-523-7059, which has been forwarded to my cell number.”

BACKDRAFT ON BROADWAY – Owner Rick Pauls surveys the massive damage at his Community Florist Jewellery and Gift premises earlier this week, following a serious fire that occurred there on Canada Day. Unburnt gases inside built up, creating a rare and dangerous backdraft situation for firefighters.


SEAT OF THE FIRE – The Office of the Fire Commissioner has deemed the cause of the July 1 fire at Community Florist to be electrical failure. Owner Rick Pauls is seen here pointing to the seat of the fire, in the south wall and behind a display cabinet, where an old renovation had left a screw in contact with wiring.


OFFICE SURVIVES FIRE – Bookkeeper Pat Turner was relieved to find the Community Florist’s office at the rear of the building escaped extreme damage in the July 1 fire. She was able to recover the last two days’ receipts, seen here in the shade, and still get the job done.



DRAGON’S BREATH AT FLORIST’S DOOR – Fire crew who responded to a 911 page for Community Florist Jewellery and Gift during the early afternoon of Canada Day knew there was trouble when hot brown smoke was seen snaking in and out of the front door. The backdraft situation eventually exploded out the back doors, and firefighters were able to hose down the interior and extinguish flames.



FLORAL CORNER – In less than a week, Community Florist Jewellery and Gift manager Jenny Beare (left), business owner Rick Pauls and florist Janice Smith (right) had rallied from the shock of a devastating fire on Canada Day at their Broadway location. They have now re-opened in a temporary, but beautiful flower stall in the Killarney Place mall. It’s business as usual – but just flowers for now – at the Creative Kitchen kiosk in the mall’s north end.