'Raging' fire at Newfoundland fish plant forces hundreds from homes

Bay de Verde Gerard Murphy said he invoked the emergency plan sometime after 6 a.m.

BAY DE VERDE, N.L. — Hundreds of people were forced out of their homes and a state of emergency was declared in a small Newfoundland town early Monday after a massive fire swept through a fish plant, dealing a devastating economic blow to the area.

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 says 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.”

Murphy said several fire departments were trying 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 were on scene, but that 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.

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.

Barbie Skulason, whose husband manages one part of the plant and is also with the fire department, said they were alerted to the fire at about 5:30 a.m. She wasn’t asked to leave, but retrieved family members who live closer to the plant that is about two hours northwest of St. John’s.

She got a glimpse of the fire when she headed out to pick up her niece and other relatives.

“It’s raging,” she said. “As soon as you go down over the main hill, you cannot see the other side of the harbour because of the black smoke.”

She said 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.

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.

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

For Wanda Riggs, that loss could mean the end of both her and her husband’s incomes.

Riggs, who watched the plant burn to the ground from her home atop a hill above the harbour, 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.”