Witnesses say the Grassy Plains Country Store, located about 245 kilometres west of Prince George, burned to the ground due to a problem in the kitchen.
Catherine van Tine Marcinek says she and her daughter were headed to work when they saw the smoke from nearly two kilometres away.
"There were flames coming out of the roof, out of the vent above their grill," she said. "We pulled over and started flying around there and making sure there was nobody in that building."
Marcinek, who works for the Cheslatta Carrier Nation, says a community effort managed to save the meat shop next door.
"Before long, there were dozens of locals there. People started showing up with pumps and trailers with water tanks on the back."
Residents say that as one of only two stores on the southside of the community, the destruction of the Grassy Plains Country Store is a huge loss.
This past summer, owners Gary and Fayth Martin opened the doors of their store to those affected by the devastating wildfires.
"They were lifesavers all throughout the whole horrendous fire season," said local Mike Robertson. "Every night the family would all get together, and they would cook huge meals for anybody that needed it from local residents to firefighters."
Now Marcinek says she expects the Southside community will come together to help the family recover from the loss.
"My daughter's talking about a fundraiser already. They helped so much during the wildfires this summer and now it's time that we help them."
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The Grassy Plains Country Store & Restaurant in the Lakes District west of Prince George somehow survived one of the most devastating wildfire calamities in B.C. history, then promptly burned to the ground Wednesday morning.
Even in the heat of the moment – perhaps because of the moments heat – it was an irony not lost on the dozens of residents who responded to the Southside blaze.
One of them, Xandria Ahlbrand, hadnt even showered off the black smoke before she was planning fundraising efforts for the owners, Fayth and Gary Martin.
“They worked themselves exhausted, they didnt charge a penny to anyone, and they contributed in every possible way, all summer. Every day, those firefighters had a buffet of free food, they had lunches to go, they had all kinds of supplies, and so did anyone who was in need from the evacuations. The Martins were heroes. Thats the only word for it. And now, they have been hit with this terrible loss so we have to show them that they are really appreciated, that we love them for what they did, and for this to happen to them is just crazy. And were going to help. Were not a community over here, we are a family.”
Ahlbrand is unsure if the store and cafe had insurance, but she knows that the losses are inevitably larger than such policies will cover.
The Grassy Plains Store, after all, was the unofficial headquarters of the widespread, rural and geographically isolated Southside community in between Francois and Ootsa Lakes.
Ahlbrand and her mother Catherine Van Tine Marcinek were driving to work at about 8:15 a.m. and noticed too much smoke coming from a rooftop vent. They pulled in and joined another passerby who had noticed the same. Before long, the black smudge also had traces of flame coming out the vent, and soon the large interior was engulfed in flames.
The store also had an apartment occupied by a mother and two children. The growing cluster of onlookers checked the suite, found it empty, and moved next to clear out the adjacent buildings (one of them was a meat processing operation less than six feet from the store). They found some garden hoses and used them in vain as they waited for the Southside Volunteer Fire Department to arrive.
“The firefighters soaked down the buildings nearby and saved them all, everything, except the one store structure,” Van Tine Marcinek added.
An estimated 60 people joined the firefighting effort. The store is a short distance from the Grassy Plains School, the community hall isnt much further up the road, and its the hub of other nearby homes and businesses. There are only a handful of community clusters on the Southside, but Grassy Plains is one of the most notable hamlets in the forestry/agriculture enclave.
Private citizens, fresh off a summer of dogged wildfire fighting, much of it on their own terms, had water trucks and other resources at the ready. The Cheslatta First Nation rolled a number of useful people and materials to the scene.
“The 911 call came in about 8:20,” said firefighter Axel Orr. “We were on-scene within a half-hour or a bit less. We had three people on-scene from the department with our tanker truck and a rescue truck with foam. We were also helped by a lot of community members and some of their trucks and other resources. It was great to see that big response.”
Although there were fuel pumps situated in the parking lot out front of the store, there was no gas or diesel in the underground tanks. That relieved some of the potential danger of the fire.
“Our main concern was the adjacent buildings. We knew as soon as we got there we couldnt save the first building,” said Orr. “Its so sad. Thats all there is to say about it. The Grassy Store fed firefighters and they fed residents in need all summer long, they did incredible things, they did it all for free at great personal expense to themselves, but they didnt think twice about doing it, and now this happens to them.”
The cause of the fire is under investigation. Orr said the origin seemed to be the kitchen, in the vicinity of a deep fryer.
At the time of the fire, Fayth Martin was out of town and husband Gary could only join his neighbours in the effort to spare the adjacent buildings.
The family who lived in the stores suite will be in need of some household items and personal effects, having lost all of their belongings. Donation discussions can be directed to Lisa Orr at 250-694-3609.
The volunteer fire department would also appreciate more personnel. Anyone living in their area who would like to join their ranks is asked to call 250-694-3219.