A former Winnipeg firefighter who watched his recycling business burn to the ground last month because of a jurisdictional issue says he regrets his decision to locate it just outside city limits.

A former Winnipeg firefighter who watched his recycling business burn to the ground last month because of a jurisdictional issue says he regrets his decision to locate it just outside city limits.

The emergency response to a massive blaze in the complex with several businesses on McGillivray Boulevard June 30 has left ReGen Composites owner Prakash Gowdar shaking his head.

Gowdar said he chose the location on McGillivray Boulevard — a few hundred metres outside the city in the rural municipality of Macdonald — because the space worked for the business when he moved there in May 2017.

He said lower business taxes were not a factor in the decision, one he now wishes he hadn’t made.

"When we rebuild, there is no way I would do it in the RM of Macdonald," Gowdar said Monday. "I would 100 per cent do it within the city limits. I just didn’t think the response time would be that horrendous."

Fire crews from RM of Macdonald fight the blaze.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / FREE PRESS FILES

Fire crews from RM of Macdonald fight the blaze.

The response turned into a jurisdictional nightmare for the affected business owners and their employees, who were left watching helplessly as they waited for assistance.

A Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service crew from the Taylor Avenue fire station was dispatched moments after the initial call to 911 was made at 1:22 p.m. That crew, however cancelled its response three minutes later, after discovering the location was outside the city.

Crews from the RM of Macdonald arrived about 30 minutes after the 911 call, but without a full-sized ladder truck necessary to tackle the blaze. Heavy black smoke was billowing from the building at that point.

Gowdar, who worked in the WFPS for more than 20 years, said firefighters have about four to five minutes to address the type of fire that destroyed his livelihood before it’s out of control.

Gowdar said after the fire he spoke to the captain of the fire station at 1780 Taylor Ave., who told him a truck from that station was on Kenaston Boulevard, heading south to McGillivray, before being told to turn around.

The WFPS spokesperson said due to a high volume of 911 calls about the fire, a "WFPS executive" decided to send resources to the scene at 2:03 p.m.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / FREE PRESS FILES

The WFPS spokesperson said due to a high volume of 911 calls about the fire, a "WFPS executive" decided to send resources to the scene at 2:03 p.m.

The Taylor station is approximately 5.7 kilometres from the complex that burned. The lone station in the RM of Macdonald is in Sanford, approximately 24 kilometres away.

City of Winnipeg’s Fire Paramedic Service bylaw states the WFPS can provide services outside the boundaries only if the city has an agreement with, in this case, the RM of Macdonald, or if the RM requests the service and agrees to pay for it.

Bound by bylaw

The City of Winnipeg’s Fire Paramedic Service bylaw states the WFPS can provide services outside its boundaries only if the city has an agreement with the RM, or if the RM requests help and agrees to pay for it.

The WFPS charges $1,330 per hour for each truck and $333 per hour for each district chief and driver assisting at fires outside Winnipeg’s boundaries.

However, if the City of Winnipeg deems an emergency is “sufficiently near the city to represent a threat to residents or property within the city,” the chief administrative officer has the authority to respond to the emergency.

The City of Winnipeg’s Fire Paramedic Service bylaw states the WFPS can provide services outside its boundaries only if the city has an agreement with the RM, or if the RM requests help and agrees to pay for it.

The WFPS charges $1,330 per hour for each truck and $333 per hour for each district chief and driver assisting at fires outside Winnipeg’s boundaries.

However, if the City of Winnipeg deems an emergency is “sufficiently near the city to represent a threat to residents or property within the city,” the chief administrative officer has the authority to respond to the emergency.

A city spokesperson said the Office of Emergency Management was “monitoring the smoke on June 30 in case the need for evacuation of Winnipeg residents was required at any point.”

“This was an RM of Macdonald call to make, It’s their responsibility,” Winnipeg’s protection and community services chair Coun. Sherri Rollins said.

“It is probably an interesting discussion, following the fire in the RM of Macdonald, about whether or not they should formalize (an) agreement with Winnipeg... but it is possible that they want to focus their resources on other things like lower taxes, which is why some of those businesses are at the edge of town.”

A provincial spokesperson for the Office of the Fire Commissioner said each municipality has the authority and responsibility to provide its own protections.

For police emergencies, Winnipeg Police Service Const. Rob Carver said if services were required outside city limits, the WPS would have to receive a request for assistance from the RCMP in order to respond.

Cody Sellar

The WFPS charges $1,330 per hour for each truck and $333 per hour for each district chief and driver assisting at fires outside Winnipeg’s boundaries.

Winnipeg and Macdonald do not have a formal agreement for the use of cross-jurisdictional emergency services.

Despite city policy, Gowdar was incredulous about the city’s adherence to the letter of the law.

"In almost 23 years, nobody’s ever relied on somebody on the phone telling them to turn around, because there’s too many lines of communication that can be lost on the phone," he said.

The original 911 call was automatically directed to the Winnipeg 911 call centre, because the call had pinged off a Winnipeg cell tower. However, a spokesperson for the WFPS said the city’s 911 centre was in simultaneous contact with the provincial 911 communications centre in Brandon.

The large plume of black smoke could be seen from miles away.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / FREE PRESS FILES

The large plume of black smoke could be seen from miles away.

RM of Macdonald fire chief Mike Siemens said his department was dispatched at 1:21 p.m. Ten minutes later, a second call came from Winnipeg police, who reported the plume of black smoke to their communication centre, said the spokesperson for the WFPS. Because the fire was outside their jurisdiction, and because the RM of Macdonald had not yet requested assistance, Winnipeg fire crews did not respond to that call, the spokesperson said.

Pool Pros owner Joey Walker and someone on the scene who asked to be referred to as a "bystander," who also lost property in the fire, say trucks from the RM of Macdonald arrived at about 1:50 p.m.

Siemens said about this time, his deputy chief had called in the Headingley Fire Department, which is their "mutual aid," meaning they assist each other free of charge.

The WFPS spokesperson said due to a high volume of 911 calls about the fire, a "WFPS executive" decided to send resources to the scene at 2:03 p.m., and at 2:30 p.m. Siemens tasked Winnipeg crews to supply water and to deploy a ladder truck for "water-tower operations."

Fire crews take a break from the extreme heat and smoke.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / FREE PRESS FILES

Fire crews take a break from the extreme heat and smoke.

RM of Macdonald Reeve Brad Erb said the municipality doesn’t have its own ladder truck because "all of our buildings in their design, in terms of their height, don’t require a ladder truck."

Erb declined to comment on whether or not the fire response was handled appropriately, but he did say he expected there to be discussions about a formal agreement with Winnipeg in the future.

On Monday, he said he hadn’t yet spoken to Siemens about the incident and would not say more until he had an opportunity to sit down with his fire chief, who acknowledged he arrived on the scene late because he’d been in a meeting.

Upon arrival at the fire, Siemens said he spoke to the WFPS district chief, asked for help and approved the costs.

"Then we started working together," he said. "So, yes, that takes time."

“It’s tough as a business owner when you’re watching millions and millions of dollars go up in smoke, and there’s nothing being done.” – Former Winnipeg firefighter Praksh Gowdar

By 2:30 p.m. the fire had been burning for at least 75 minutes.

Gowdar, who said he arrived on the scene around 2:10 p.m., shortly after the WFPS district chief, said a smaller pumper truck had been spraying the fire when he arrived, but it was inadequate. He said relay pumps from a hydrant down the road weren’t set up and working until about 3 p.m.

"It’s tough as a business owner when you’re watching millions and millions of dollars go up in smoke, and there’s nothing being done," he said, adding damages to his business are estimated at about $6 million.

After lines had been spraying for about an hour, the black smoke had mostly stopped and the fire appeared under control, Gowdar said.

Siemens said he believed the fire was under control at that point and he made the decision to shut down the lines. The WFPS was asking for its trucks back and the aerial ladder truck needed to be moved after being hit with smoke, a danger for firefighters.

"We saw it as an opportunity to make the switch," he said.

The fire ended up raging into the night, with crews and equipment from Macdonald, Winnipeg, Headingley, Morris and Cartier all eventually joining the battle

RUTH BONNEVILLE / FREE PRESS FILES

The fire ended up raging into the night, with crews and equipment from Macdonald, Winnipeg, Headingley, Morris and Cartier all eventually joining the battle

But about 20 minutes after the lines were shut off, black smoke started to billow again, and it the fire was again out of control, Gowdar said.

"This is total negligence and incompetence at the highest level — to shut down everything," he said.

Walker, who had congregated with staff a safe distance down the street, said the fire roared back to life after the lines had been shut off.

"Around four o’clock or whatever, all of a sudden we saw a big black cloud with a kind of fireball twisting through it."

To add to the danger and confusion, Siemens said crews were hamstrung because a gas line had been breached. Extinguishing a natural gas fire before the supply line is shut off is dangerous because gas can collect in the building and explode he said, but wouldn’t explain why the gas line was not shut off immediately or provide the time it finally was.

"It was after supper they were finally shut off," he said.

The rubble was still smouldering the day after the fire.

ALEX LUPUL / FREE PRESS FILES

The rubble was still smouldering the day after the fire.

The bystander said a Manitoba Hydro employee showed up at that time and crimped the line to stop the supply. Manitoba Hydro did not respond to the Free Press before Monday’s deadline.

The fire raged into the night, with crews and equipment from Macdonald, Winnipeg, Headingley, Morris and Cartier all eventually joining the battle, said Siemens. The rubble burned and smouldered for days.

Gowdar believes things would have ended differently if the first Winnipeg crew hadn’t been cancelled.

"Everybody was calling me after, apologizing — like firefighters that were there — saying ‘sorry for screwing up, this was the biggest gong show we’ve ever been to,’" he said.

The whole operation was "disorganized chaos," said Gowdar, noting that if someone had been stuck in the fire early on, the delay in crews getting to fire could have ended in tragedy.

 

cody.sellar@freepress.mb.ca