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Seven businesses burned to the ground and some of the city's historic tourist sites were badly damaged last night as a fire tore through downtown Moose Jaw.

Mayor Al Schwinghamer said the fire began just after 10 a.m. in the basement of a 100-year-old building at the corner of Main Street North and River Street West.

Calling it a "solid blow" to the city, Mr. Schwinghamer said the only good news was that so far, no one had been injured. He said the fire was brought under control by about 8:30 p.m. local time.

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"It was some of the older buildings that we have in our city that were being reused for tourism," he said. "As you know, Moose Jaw has a reputation of being the fastest-growing tourist destination in our country. That being said, some of the items that led to that success are no longer there."

Two buildings on Main Street south of River Street were levelled. The Chow Building, where the fire began, contained an ice cream store, a gift shop and a restaurant. It was declared a heritage building in 1998.

Flames later spread down the street to Joyner's department store, a historic building that housed various businesses.

The buildings were built in 1892 to replace those destroyed in a fire a year earlier.

Calling it "a catastrophic loss to the city," Fire Chief Garth Palmer said last night the fire was one of the worst he's seen in his 28 years with the department. About 50 firefighters battled the blaze for most of the day.

"My whole building is in the basement. My business is in the basement," said Susie McCann, 41, owner of Susie's Pie and Coffee Shop in the Chow Building.

Ms. McCann said the area was in the midst of a revitalization campaign aimed at turning River Street, once the centre of Moose Jaw's red-light-district, into a tourist-friendly pedestrian walkway.

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"This is devastating to Moose Jaw's tourism," she said.

Wade McBride, owner of Joyner's Antique Emporium, in the second building, said the fire was bad "because Moose Jaw's economy is based on its history."

Fire officials said they evacuated a hotel and restaurant on the same side of the street as the gift and ice cream shops. The people were taken to the Temple Gardens Mineral Spa.

The fire had threatened to spread into the tunnels of Moose Jaw, a major tourist attraction that offers guided tours of tunnels where infamous gangster Al Capone is said to have done some of his bootlegging.

Firefighters managed to save the site from the flames, but Mr. Schwinghamer said it had water and smoke damage.

The tunnels offered a rough-and-tumble crowd of hoodlums a haven for boozing, gambling and prostitution during Prohibition days in the Thirties.

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Since the tunnels opened in June, 2000, tourists have visited them from every U.S. state and 50 countries worldwide. The mayor's office has estimated that people visiting the tunnels inject $15-million a year into the local economy.

Severe cold made it feel like -22 C in Moose Jaw last night.

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