An investigation is getting underway to determine the cause of a fire that destroyed businesses when it tore through a heritage building on Columbia Street early Monday morning.
New Westminster Fire and Rescue Services was called to the building at the corner of Columbia and Church streets at 3:16 a.m. on Monday, May 24. The building was home to the Heritage Grill, Pho Pho You, Happy Buddha Tattoos and MagnetiQ Club Lounge.
“The crews worked tirelessly all through the day yesterday as well as last night,” Fire Chief Tim Armstrong told the Record Tuesday afternoon. “We officially deemed the fire out this morning. We usually leave the crews on scene, rotating through for a good 12 hours after a fire is considered to be out, to make sure there are no hotspots and that it doesn’t flare up again.”
A fire crew remained on scene monitoring the site on Tuesday morning, and fire investigators were planning to visit the site with insurance companies Tuesday afternoon.
Armstrong said it’s too early to know whether the fire is suspicious. He said comments posited on social media that the fire started in a dumpster or that the nightclub was under investigation aren’t accurate.
“We are just right now starting our investigation into that,” he said of the cause. “It’s to be determined.”
Because the building is now a pile of rubble, Armstrong said the investigation would include gathering video surveillance in the area and statements from firefighters to determine what they saw when they arrived at the fire.
“We are thinking it probably initiated in a common hallway, but we are still looking into that,” he told the Record. “There was a hall area that serviced all the units in there, including the nightclub.”
Armstrong said he said there are “no real concerns” for the public’s safety, but he does have a message for community members who are concerned about the number of fires occurring in New West in recent months.
“The message to the community is just to be vigilant,” he said. “If they see anything, don’t hesitate to report it. The earlier we get there, the easier it is to put these fires out. If they see smoke or anything like that, don’t hesitate to report it. We will investigate it.”
Upon their arrival at the fire, Armstrong said crews found “substantial” smoke and “quite a bit of fire” in the building. After initially fighting the fire from inside the building, he said a decision was made to attack the quickly spreading fire from the exterior.
“If that got up into the ceiling, there was some heavy equipment like air conditioning units and things like that, we were worried about that,” Armstrong said. “The roof got fully involved pretty quick, so we pulled the crews out and went defensive. We were more concerned about the fire hopping the fire wall and catching the adjacent property, which is part of the Columbia SkyTrain station building.”
To prevent the fire from spreading to the building next door, fire crews were stationed on top of that building, pouring water on the fire to prevent flames or embers from getting onto the adjacent building.
At its peak, 40 firefighters fought the fire, including some from Coquitlam Fire and Rescue Service. Richmond and Delta fire departments covered the Queensborough area, so local firefighters stationed at the Queensborough hall head to the fire in downtown New West.
According to the City of New Westminster’s heritage database, the Evans B. Dean Block was built in an Edwardian Classical style 1910 for use as office and retail space, as well as facilities for the Westminster Club. Built of brick and timber, the building has been home to restaurants, nightclubs and offices through the decades.
Armstrong said old buildings in the downtown present a number of challenges from a firefighting perspective, such as issues with fire stops. While they have “lots of void spaces,” he said they predate the requirement for sprinklers.
“Once fire sets in, it’s hard to control the fire spread in these buildings,” he said.
As word about Monday’s fire spread, community members took to social media to voice support for the businesses that were destroyed.
Online GoFundMe campaigns were quickly launched in support two of the businesses destroyed in the blaze.
Jordan Howton, an apprentice at the tattoo shop, started the Help Happy Buddha Rebuild after a Building Burned fundraiser, which is hoping to raise $10,000.
“This fundraiser is to ensure that our artists who we look to as a part of our family can have their tools that have been lost in the fire in order to continue their passion, and your donation will be used to replace the necessary equipment, as each machine can cost of an upwards of $1,000+,” said a description about the fundraiser. “We have seen such a great help from the community reaching out to help us find a new home. And thank you for helping Happy Buddha regrow through this next step in our journey.”
The Heritage Grill has been the recipient of an outpouring of community support. The Help Paul Recover From The Heritage Grill Fire GoFundMe campaign had exceeded its $5,000 goal, raising more than $12,000 within 24 hours.
“Paul Minhas is a pillar of the New Westminster community. Supporting the arts, the LGBTQ+ community in New West and pretty much anyone else looking for support,” wrote Geoff McLennan, who started the online fundraiser. “Today his restaurant, the Heritage Grill, burned down. Now is New Westminster’s chance to show Paul the support same support he’s shown the rest of us for years.”
The businesses impacted by the fire took to social media to thank firefighters for their efforts and to acknowledge the support of community members.
In a Facebook post, the team at MagnetiQ Club Lounge said New Westminster and Coquitlam firefighters did a “valiant job” in containing the flames so they did not spread further and thanked them for their long and courageous work.
“The damage has completely incinerated the club, so we kindly ask all to be patient with us,” said Monday’s posting. “We are still in shock and processing the incident.”
Happy Buddah Tattoos noted it had lost everything in the fire and urged community members to watch for news about temporary work locations for its artists.
Pho Pho You expressed gratitude that no one was harmed in the fire. In a Facebook message posted before the fire spread and destroyed the building, the restaurant noted it had been working hard to renovate the restaurant, but would have to put those efforts on hold to clean and fix damage sustained in the fire.
“We thank you for all your support and love and will keep you updated,” said the restaurants.
The Heritage Grill originally thought it may survive the fire, but that was not the case.
“Sadly throughout the day, events took a turn for the worse. We would have been celebrating our 16-year anniversary in just four days. Now there is nothing left,” said a posting on Facebook. “It has been an honour welcoming so many of you to ‘The Grill’ over the past almost-16 years. No doubt the monumental loss will hit home for us and the community in the coming days and weeks. We will take some time to process today’s events and now divide our focus on reopening Begbie’s in the next few days after we learn more details on the lifting of the COVID-19 circuit breaker.”
On Monday afternoon, flowers were placed in front of Judge Begbie’s Tavern at 609 Columbia St., another business owned by Minhas.
The Victoria Day fire on Columbia Street comes at a time when businesses are reeling from the effects of the public health restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
More to come.