Brochet grocery store destroyed in fire 'a lifeline to the community'

A remote northern Manitoba community has lost its only grocery store to a fire that RCMP are investigating as a potential arson.

The fire at the Northern Store in Brochet, Man., began around 4 a.m. CT Sunday and destroyed the building, which also housed the local post office and ATMs.

It was also where members of the Barren Lands First Nation would pick up their assistance payments, said Jason Johnson, who lives in the area.

"The Northern Store was basically a lifeline to the community," Johnson said in an interview.

"Canada Post was there, and the ATMs; people not getting their band assistance, groceries. Major lifelines have been shut out from the community."

RCMP say they are investigating the fire, which they believe is suspicious.

"While a definitive cause has not been determined, it is being investigated as arson at this time," police stated in a news release.

Manitoba's Office of the Fire Commissioner is helping the RCMP with the investigation.

'Everything was exploding'

Johnson said the building was coming down by the time he and other residents arrived to see what was happening.

"It was loud and whatnot because there's ammunition and there's also the canned products," he said.

"Everything was exploding like crazy, so we had to stay away … just in case of the possibility of being shot by bullets."

There were no injuries, say police.

Brochet is about 940 kilometres by air northwest of Winnipeg, near the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border. It is accessible only by air in the summer. An ice road serves Brochet in the winter, but it is closed for this season.

Johnson said residents of the small community are most concerned about children, elders and residents with diabetes and other health issues.

"We have a couple of local convenience stores that do have some small items, but as for the majority of the groceries, it's all from the Northern Store — milk, bread, Pampers … everything for the children," he said.

"Everybody's somewhat shocked and kind of like unsure what to do."

Johnson said he's looking at driving along the ice road route — which is largely muskeg at this point — as early as Sunday night to Lynn Lake to buy groceries and essential supplies.

The drive, he estimated, would take 7½ hours each way. Lynn Lake is about 120 kilometres south of Brochet by air. 

It's not the first time in recent months that a remote Manitoba community has lost its sole grocery store to fire.

The Northern Store and band office in Shamattawa, Man., burned down in September, prompting local officials to declare a state of emergency. A 12-year-old boy was charged with arson in connection with that fire.

A state of emergency was declared in Brochet Monday morning. CBC News has reached out to community leaders and the North West Company, which owns the Northern Store, for comment.