"We got a call at 2 a.m. that there was a fire in the store, and we came down and there was a big fire," said Hassan Kassar, assistant manager of Northmart, one of two major retailers selling groceries and merchandise to people in Nunavut's capital.
Fire at Iqaluits largest store raises concerns shelves will be empty
"Unfortunately we are going to be closed today obviously with the situation we are in, until we are able to get into the building and assess what the situation is," said Kassar.
The fire is one of several blazes — also affecting debris beside the store and multiple vehicles — reported Wednesday night and early Thursday morning, all in the same area.
RCMP, and municipal enforcement and firefighters are all attending to them. The city says 18 firefighters attended five fires, with three of them being car fires.
The city's acting fire chief Nelson Johnson said the fire started in the loading dock area and moved up to the attic.
The part of the Northmart store that is on fire is the warehouse area, where the food that comes up on sealift cargo ships is stored. The city said there is enough space in the community to cover additional food storage needs.
Iqaluit has no road connection to southern Canada, so all food must be flown or shipped into the city.
The last of the sealifts before Frobisher Bay freezes just arrived, so losing food and storage space will have consequences for the city this winter.
About half of the building appears to be destroyed. Two excavators worked to demolish the warehouse section to prevent the fire from spreading to the main grocery section of the store.
Iqaluit Mayor Madeleine Redfern said it's likely most of the non-perishables that have been shipped up are gone.
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"All the furniture, appliances, the snowmobile shop for the most part at this point has been lost. So it's a major disruption for anyone who would need those goods over the course of the year," she said.
City Councillor Kyle Sheppard says it's too early to speculate what impact the fire will have on food prices, but says he hopes the retailers will be "good corporate citizens" and minimize the cost consequences.
PreviousNextHide captionToggle Fullscreen1 of 0Water conservationThe city is asking residents to conserve water Thursday so the water supply can go to fighting the fire.
Andrea Spitzer, the city's communications manager, is asking residents to avoid the area around the store to allow emergency services to work quickly. Nakasuk Elementary School, across from the Northmart, will remain closed for the day.
Most perishable food is flown year-round into the city of 7,700, while non-perishable food items and hard goods come in by sea.
The fire forced the evacuation of a set of townhouses for community elders behind the store. The elders living there have been temporarily relocated to the Elders Qammaq — a community gathering place and drop-in centre for seniors. The Canadian Red Cross is also assisting the elders.
The government of Nunavut is working on finding longer-term accommodations for the displaced elders.
"There's a little bit of panic, I guess, considering we're the only main grocery store left in town, so people are concerned food is going to run out," said John Simms, director of subsidiaries and auxiliary business for Arctic Cooperatives, who is responsible for the Iqaluit store's operations.
Arctic Ventures is able to triple its food shipments, which come in on a cargo flight once a week, bringing in an extra 27,000 kilograms weekly without changing its shipment schedule.
The city is working with the territorial government and other retailers on a contingency plan, Redfern said, telling residents "it's not a time to panic."
"There will be food flown into the community on a regular basis, if not more frequently at this point in time," the mayor said.
Northmart had a food shipment scheduled to come in Thursday, and Arctic Co-operatives, which owns Ventures, said it will take the food as part of a contingency plan to feed Iqaluit.
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#7. Posted by reader on November 08, 2018 should be a good time to start and open inuit organization(s) to open a big mall related to north and made for northern inuit people and beyond. instead of profits ending up in winnipeg. i say … winnipeg ? we don’t want your business here anymore. thank-you, bye.
Firefighters raced to save the largest store in Iqaluit Thursday as civic officials worked to ensure that Nunavuts capital city would not run out of food or water.
The fire at Northmart, one of only two grocery stores in the city, was first noticed around 1:40 a.m., acting fire chief Nelson Johnson told reporters at a press conference. A crew of workers on an overnight shift were inside the store at the time.
Northmart is on fire. My mother lost power at the Elders Units, which alerted her to the fire. She is now safely tucked into bed at my place. The shop is in full flames. I hope everyone is safe.#Iqaluit pic.twitter.com/CI6GU53YPV
Iqaluits firefighters had already been having an unusually busy night, dealing with three vehicle fires and one fire set outside a vacant house. They entered the Northmart and attempted to extinguish the flames, which had already spread from the loading dock area into an attic.
Northmart is on fire.My mother lost power at the Elder’s Units, which alerted her to the fire. She is now safely tucked into bed at my place.The shop is in full flames.I hope everyone is safe.#Iqaluit pic.twitter.com/CI6GU53YPV
The intensity of the fire soon overwhelmed the firefighters, who retreated outside the building and switched to a defensive attack. Preserving the stores main shopping area and the elder centre next door became their priority.
Northmart is owned by North West Co., a publicly traded company headquartered in Winnipeg. Its Northmart outlet in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador was badly damaged by fire last September, but re-opened for business Nov. 2.
As daybreak arrived and Iqaluit residents awakened, pictures began popping up of thick, black smoke billowing from the store.
Watching a nightmare unfold is surreal. Its just getting worse, Kaani Naulaq tweeted at 7:27 a.m.
Iqaluit resident Mike Hadfield described the store, which offered a wide variety of goods aside from food, as the hub of the community.
After he heard about the fire, he went to the Arctic Co-Operatives store – the citys sole remaining grocery store – to stock up on milk, eggs and other items.
Within 10 minutes of me leaving the store, I drove by again and you couldnt find a parking spot within three blocks, he told The Canadian Press.
The fire continued to burn as morning turned into afternoon, with crews from outside the city being called in to relieve the local firefighters. It had spread to a furniture store in another part of the Northmart building by this time.
The impact on the retail store remains unclear this morning. Firefighters said they did not know if there were any staff or people in the building when the blaze started.
The flames had not reached the main grocery store, Johnson said, but the supermarket would likely have smoke and water damage. It was also unclear how much food would survive intact, given power to the building had been cut and temperatures outside had been around -5 C all day.
Local officials estimate that 60 per cent of the citys food comes from Northmart. Even if everything in the store turns out to be unsalvageable, they said, there would be no imminent risk to Iqaluits overall food supply. As there are no roads leading to the city, supplies are typically shipped via airplane or boat. Every fall, many shipping containers full of dry goods are sent to Iqaluit to last its residents through the winter.
Amy Elgersma, the citys acting chief administrative officer, said other retailers were increasing their usual orders of fruits, vegetables, meats and other perishable foods, while many of the recently arrived shipping containers were being stored outside the Northmart warehouse.
The City of Iqaluit is asking residents on trucked water to conserve water for the day, so water trucks could supply what was needed to the fire department.
There is enough food. There will be enough food brought in on a consistent basis, Elgersma said.
Iqaluits Northmart is on fire. Lets hope everyone is safe. #Iqaluit #Northwestcompany #Nunavut pic.twitter.com/VhEczkgL7v
Also being monitored was the citys water supply, as the lengthy firefighting effort was placing high demands on the limited water system. Deliveries from water trucks, which cover the many properties not hooked up to the municipal system, were halted because of firefighting needs.
We dont have any immediate concerns, but we are concerned about the levels of water in general. Were monitoring that and asking residents to conserve, Elgersma said.
The fire caused a nearby elementary school to cancel its classes for the day. The elder centre next door to the store was evacuated.
Because of the cost and difficulty of shipping goods to Iqaluit, grocery prices are significantly higher than they are in southern Canada.
The federal government attempts to keep healthy food affordable through the Nutrition North program, but many items still cost two to three times what they do in most of the country.
This weeks flyer for the Northmart store in Iqaluit advertised large cartons of orange juice on sale for $10.19 and canned vegetables at $3.19, as well as a $4.99 sale price for two rolls of paper towels.
Iqaluit resident Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster told CTV News Channel she feared the towns convenience stores and one remaining supermarket would raise their prices with Northmart out of commission.
Increased prices would make food insecurity a bigger issue not only in Iqaluit, but also for people in other communities on Baffin Island. Because prices are even higher outside the city, out-of-towners often stock up on non-perishables while in Iqaluit for medical appointments or other reasons.
In Rankin Inlet – the second-largest community in Nunavut – the local grocery store recently advertised produce specials including peppers at $8.99 per kilogram and grapes at $7.99 per kilogram.
A 2014 report found that half of Inuit children in Nunavut aged 11 to 15 sometimes go to bed hungry.
City councilor Kyle Sheppard acknowledged the unease over a potential increases in food prices, but said he trusted Iqaluits retailers to do the right thing and not try to gouge customers.
I would hope that our retailers would be good corporate citizens and would continue to provide the services at current prices, he said.
Watching a nightmare unfold is surreal. Its just getting worse. We will have no northmart soon. One of two grocery stores in #Iqaluit #Nunavut #grocerystore #onfire @cbchh pic.twitter.com/IhYz4EIYcv
Arctic Co-operatives said Thursday that it had agreed to purchase a freighter-load of supplies on its way to Iqaluit that was originally destined for Northmart.
We have committed to the full freighter of inventory that was already in transit, Duane Wilson, the companys vice-president of stakeholder relations, told The Canadian Press.
Additionally, Wilson said, the store had increased the amount of goods it had ordered in an air shipment expected to arrive on Friday.