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274 Jarvis St. Fire – Art Scene Debrief – A Conversation with the Assistant Chief, Fire and EMS Prevention and Public Education

July 31st, 2019

Today I had a conversation with Mark Reshaur, Assistant Chief, Fire and EMS Prevention and Public Education. He told me the fire department was at 274 Jarvis Street again today because they are “still finding smouldering fires under the debris” left by the blaze that started in the early hours of Monday, July 29th. A fire that reduced the 82,000 square foot industrial building to a heap of rubble.

Reshaur said of Monday’s blaze that fire fighters entered the building and couldn’t stay inside for longer than 30 minutes due to the heat. All they could do was contain the fire from the outside and watch the building burn. CBC released a video that shows you what a devastating inferno they were dealing with.

A visit to the site today revealed fenced in rubble and twisted heavy metal beams. The exterior walls that were still left standing have been pushed over by fire crews so that they don’t fall on anyone. Two security guards watch over the site.

The fire was so hot, the heavy metal beams that supported the structure were left melted and twisted.
A view of the basement where the musicians used to rehearse

274 Jarvis Street housed about 27 artists as well as musicians, sound engineers, a mechanics shop, craftsmen and even the non-prof Agape Table. All the rented spaces contained their possessions and tools for their trade. Possessions that went up in smoke.

You can still smell the smoke today, 3 days later, on Jarvis Street. The house across the street looks like it melted. Businesses nearby sustained damages.

The house next door looked like it melted
Cars in the neighbouring business parking lot were incinerated

What can the art community learn from this horrible incident?

People have been devastated and businesses shut down. I want to provide a debrief. I don’t mean to sound like I’m victim blaming. I would like for us all to take a moment to realize that we can take measures to prevent fires. We can also take measures to choose safe spaces to work and play. We are responsible for our own safety. It’s only by luck that there were no lives lost in that blaze. That fact isn’t actually even determined yet. The police are investigating.

I asked Reshaur if the building had been inspected by the fire department and what were the results of the inspection? He said it was inspected and passed inspection except for something that needed to be corrected. Fire inspectors often find something they want corrected and will give the building owners a time limit to comply. Reshaur was not able to give me full details, but assured me that the building had passed inspection.

Google Maps image shows 274 Jarvis covering a whole city block (image from 2014)

I asked Reshaur if old buildings have to follow the same rules as new buildings when it comes to fire safety. He said older buildings are grandfathered in with regard to building codes and it’s only when property owners do major renovations which affect the structural design of the building including mechanical, electrical, plumbing services (no limit on size of building), fire separations, egress (exits), that they will need to get a permit for the renovations and getting the permit means updating fire protection/suppression systems. Changing the use of the building can also result in having to update fire protection/suppression systems. The City relies on the property owner to inform them when the use of the building changes. Reshaur said “compliance often creeps into non-compliance”.

“Fires are all preventable”

Mark Reshaur, Assistant Chief, Fire and EMS Prevention and Public Education, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Reshaur says “fires happen”. It’s not the building that causes the fire, it’s the behaviour of the individuals in the building that cause the fire. It’s human activity that causes the fire. He says “fires are all preventable”.

In the case of 274 Jarvis Street, the building had multiple owners, multiple tenants, and was storing fabrics, paints and other flammables, a print shop, theatre sets, an automotive shop, furniture and electrical equipment. The building had traffic going in and out of it all day and night. Multiple permits were approved by Property Planning and Development for events at the building that included alcohol and crowds of people.

The building was large with large open spaces, overhead doors and big windows all allowing for air flow that feeds a fire.

The building had thick walls and sectioned off spaces (fire separations). This is good for preventing the spread of a fire. The building also had a sprinkler system, but, although I’ve been in the building, I can’t remember if that sprinkler system was throughout the building or just in part of it. Reshaur wasn’t able to provide comment on that.

People have commented to me that the old timber beams in the building must be highly flammable. Reshaur said “It takes a long time to burn through a 10 inch beam”. 274 Jarvis was full of 10 inch timber beams.

When any of us lease or rent space, we count on everyone else to keep us safe. We think we can rely on
– Federal legislation
– Provincial legislation
– City by-laws
– Planning departments
– Fire departments
and even our landlords to keep us safe.

We also think that a building that has stood since 1918 (with additions in 1926, 1939) must be safe.

Reshaur says “Buildings occupied by the arts community seldom were designed for that use. Often vacant industrial occupancies that are re-purposed”.

He says there are common problems with studio spaces like

  1. Tenants modifying the space without a permit. Putting up partition walls or custom designed structures. Sometimes shelves or wall hangings will obstruct sprinkler heads. Tenants make holes in rated fire separations.
  2. It’s hard to know how many people are in the building at any time. People who enter the building at odd hours with no front desk reception and who don’t know their neighbours. Reshaur mentioned that the fire fighters at the scene on Jarvis didn’t know if there were any people inside the building when it caught on fire. That can be dangerous for the fire crew as they may spend a longer time inside the building at their own risk in order to search for people.
  3. Tenants may spend the night in their space, but the building is not meant to live in.
  4. A frequent turnover in tenants is common with studios and the building may be approved for one type of tenant, but things change over time to house other tenants. It’s up to the building owners to report that change to the City. It makes a difference in terms of bringing the building up to standards.
  5. Care is often not taken in the storage of hazardous materials such as flammable liquids. People also don’t understand what quantities of flammable product is safe to store in their space.
  6. Parties and raves in these buildings is a serious concern for the fire department. This point, Reshaur couldn’t stress enough.

We shouldn’t be relying on others for our safety. We should be inspecting spaces ourselves and taking an objective and educated look to decide for ourselves if it’s safe.

Things to look for and ask about when renting a studio

There is an excellent guide available online from CERF+, an American non-profit focused on safeguarding artists’ livelihoods nationwide. It’s called “Studio Safety” and I recommend it when you’re shopping for a studio space. I checked to see if there was a Canadian non-profit like this. I couldn’t find one.

The Assistant Chief, Fire and EMS Prevention and Public Education gave me a nice checklist of things to look for and ask about when renting a studio:

  1. Management/owner that can answer your questions regarding fire and life safety and who takes the issues seriously and is proactive.
  2. Does the building/studio space have an occupancy permit?
  3. Find out what hazardous liquids, aerosols etc. are allowed in studio, in what quantity and how are they to be stored. Is there a flammable liquid locker available or required?
  4. Are there limits on the storage of combustible materials?
  5. Does the building have a fire safety plan? Copy supplied? Up to date?
  6. Does the building have a fire alarm system? Instructions for how to respond?
  7. Is the building maintaining the fire and life safety systems? Look at labels for expiry dates, service and inspection, trouble lights and buzzers on fire alarm panel.
  8. Does the building account for occupants?
  9. Are the other tenants playing by the rules? when you share a common building you are only as safe as the most unsafe space in the building. If one tenant has a fire, you all have a fire. If you disregard fire safety, you jeopardize everyone in the building and their property.
  10. How does the owner respond to violations of the rules?
  11. Is overnight occupancy allowed? Sleeping on site?
  12. What is the physical condition of the building? What are the maintenance practices?

The arts community has come together for several fundraising efforts. Besides raising funds for those affected by the fire, an outpouring of support can be seen across the scene.

August 2 – Jarvis warehouse fire benefit! Friday and Saturday at THE PYRAMID CABARET: https://www.facebook.com/events/393939921123171/

August 2 – JARVIS FIRE BANDS BENEFIT SHOW AT THE PARK THEATRE: https://www.facebook.com/events/2550501931647873/

August 3 – Benefit for musical victims of the Jarvis Avenue warehouse fire at The Royal Albert Bar & Grill: https://www.facebook.com/events/1365785610243583/permalink/1369272936561517/

August 9 – JARVIS FIRE BENEFIT AT GOODWILL: https://www.facebook.com/events/2424119671150403/

GoFundMe for Devine Shirt Company: https://www.gofundme.com/f/screen-print-biz-destroyed-by-274-jarvis-fire?fbclid=IwAR0kxIY-oZb6ppumJ9rGg1FTwQ_wVWN8a19L3ocNMkwIVZfoYnQrwELozbo

GoFundMe for bands El Diablo, Witchtrip, Dreadnaut, Long Term Enemy, and others): https://www.gofundme.com/f/warehouse-fire-threatens-musician-livelihood?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=fb_co_shareflow_w&fbclid=IwAR1LxNyrx_UCNceTV9Qjj4wGJzI5ui7hB7dt8ZvdMa2Ntla0S1i1kyjD62c

GoFundMe 274 Jarvis Ave – Artist Relief organized by Border Crossings Magazine, in partnership with the Winnipeg Art Gallery and Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art, as part of a collective relief effort supported by the wider Winnipeg arts community: https://ca.gofundme.com/f/aduffw-274-jarvis-ave-artist-relief

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