A suspicious fire that raced through the main floor of city hall in Grand Forks, seriously damaging the 101-year-old building and forcing council to scramble to find a temporary home, may have irreparably harmed the region's historic records.
"I'm just sick to my stomach," Cliff Schuh, a director of the Boundary Museum, said Thursday as he awaited details on the impact of the fire that broke out at 5:30 a.m. in the B.C. community.
The fire was contained to the ground floor of the iconic building where reception, administrative and accounting offices are located. But Mr. Schuh said his big fear is that water used by firefighters cascaded down into the basement, where the archives are kept.
"The front windows are smashed. You can see a lot of smoke damage… to have all that water down there is the big worry," he said. "Water and archives don't mix."
Mr. Schuh said maps, photographs and historical documents are stored in metal filing cabinets. The records date back to when the first settlers and prospectors arrived in the region, which was founded in the late 1800s along the U.S. border in south central British Columbia.
"The city's got all their stuff down there and the Boundary Museum's got all their stuff down there … dating back to the beginning of Christ I guess," Mr. Schuh said. "Basically all our archives are stored down there. The volume of it is astronomical."
Mayor Brian Taylor said a structural study of the building has to be done before determining if it is safe for anyone, including arson investigators, to go inside to assess damage.
"There was fairly extensive damage to the lower floor, smoke damage to the upper floor, and we're having a structural engineer review the situation. … The building is barricaded off for now," he said.
Mr. Taylor said the first order of business for city council is to find a place for staff to work. "We are making plans for continuous operation of the city. We're looking at a temporary location for a period of time. We're reconnecting telephones. Basically we're going to try to operate business as usual by adjusting quickly to the crisis."
Mr. Taylor was in Vancouver, attending the annual convention of the Union of B.C. Municipalities, when an early-morning call alerted him to the fire. A few hours later he was on a flight home.
"Shock. Sadness," he said when asked his first thoughts. "This was an iconic building in the city, and although I'm not saying it's going to be lost, there's going to be a lot of repairs to get it back to what it was."
Mr. Taylor said he did not think there was any link between the city hall blaze and fires that destroyed the landmark Grand Forks Hotel and the Winnipeg Hotel, which both burned on the same morning in March, 2012.
RCMP Sergeant Darryl Little agreed. "There have been some fires, but they are not related. … it looks like this was an isolated incident," he said.
Sgt. Little said the hotel fires were linked, but police arrested and charged a man who is soon going to trial.
"It is suspicious in nature," he said of the city hall fire. "We did take a person of interest into custody and our investigators are going to be talking to him shortly to determine if he had any involvement in the incident."
He said police encountered the individual near the fire scene.
Grand Forks, with a population of about 4,000, is a quiet agricultural community that thrived in the early 1900s when gold mining, smelters and railroads brought prosperity to the region. Several striking buildings, including city hall, the provincial courthouse and the two historic hotels that burned last spring, were built during that period.