Donations in truck loads for migrant workers after St. Catharines flower farm fire

Pioneer Flower Farms employee, Sandra Fuenmayor, stood in a home garage on Sunday surrounded by donations for Mexican migrant workers who lost everything after a fire tore through a St. Catharines, Ont. farm.

No one was hurt in the fire late Friday night, but it left some employees with only what they had on their back — and without a home.

"They lost their belongings. No clothes, no personal items, nothing," said Fuenmayor. The community response was immediate.

Fuenmayor, who has been working on the farm for over five years doing accounts and receivables, says about 25 people have been displaced, with men making up a majority of that number.

To help her colleagues, Fuenmayor decided to volunteer her time to organize and hand out the donations that were being dropped off to a house where some of the workers will be staying.

Laura Clementson/CBC

She says she didn't know where all of the donations were coming from, but they were very happy with the response.

"I just know trucks are coming," said Fuenmayor.

The fire

Fuenmayor first heard of the fire around 11:15 p.m. Friday night and called 911. She told CBC News that she had no idea how big the fire was when she placed the call.

As it turns out, the fire was in a structure of about 650,000 to 700,000 square feet in total that is a series of greenhouses and outbuildings.

Laura Clementson/CBC

The flames spread to about four or five residential buildings where the workers were living. The fire was contained after several hours, but crews were still on scene Sunday because it wasn't completely out.

Firefighters are still battling the remnants of the Friday night blaze. 

Fire chief Jeff McCormick told CBC on Monday morning that crews were still trying to put out "hot spots" that continue to burn and smolder. They were spending the day working with heavy equipment operators to allow access and ensure that the fire is put out. 

Dave Upper, deputy chief of St. Catharines Fire and Emergency Services, told CBC News Sunday morning there was still an active fire inside the greenhouse that was smouldering and producing smoke, but not active flames.

According to Upper, crews were going to start pulling the greenhouse apart to reach its core and get to the hot spots that were trapped by a heavy concrete ceiling used for cold storage that has collapsed.

On Sunday afternoon, Ontario's Ministry of Environment determined that smoke leaving the site was limited and lifted the shelter-in-place warning. 

Andrew Buttigieg from the ministry said in an email that air monitoring was being done until 2 p.m. Sunday along with checking watercourses.

Dave Upper/Twitter

On Sunday, the Sikking family, who owns the farm, posted a statement to their website. It confirmed that no one was injured and that business and personal loss have occurred.

"We are saddened by this tragedy and are committed to supporting our workers (both local and migrant) through their losses and with continuity of employment," read the statement.

"We are cooperating fully with local officials to determine the cause of the fire, and will share more details as they are available."

According to the farm's website, the family business that started in 1971, is one of the largest bulb forcing farms in North America producing, over 40 million blooms per year. 

It's surrounded by neighbouring farms that produce flowers as well as produce. 

Donations

While crews worked on site of the farm, the community in St. Catharines were pulling resources together to help the farm and their employees.

Elio Fusarelli and his nephew were at the home where some of the workers are staying, to drop off donations that filled the back of a pickup truck — and that was just one of several trips the pair made.

They were travelling to Hernder Estate Wines, about 10 minutes away,  where donations were being made, then would take them over to the house.

Fusarelli's wife, Angel Fusarelli, is the daughter of Hernder Estate Wines owner and neighbour of the Sikking family.

She posted a message on her Facebook page, asking her friends for donations. That quickly turned into people from across the community and even further, stopping at the winery to drop off donations.

"We're doing what we can for them," said Fusarelli.

"The family that lost their whole business are worried about their workers and they're worried about them getting on their feet, not even thinking about themselves."

Fusarelli says by collecting the donations she's trying to alleviate some of the pressure off the farm owners.

David Ritchie

"They owned a family-owned business for almost 50 years. We are a family-owned business winery for almost 30. Family helps family. Neighbours help neighbours," she said. "[The owners] found out afterwards that I did it and were in tears because farmers have pride."

Money, gift cards, clothes, toiletries and home supplies were among the various donations that filled truck loads.

"I did not understand the magnitude of the community. It's overwhelming," said Fusarelli. "The outpour is absolutely amazing."

Jim Oblak of Smithville, Ont. heard about the need for clothes and decided to drop some off at the winery.

"You got it so you might as well donate it. Everybody's got more than they need nowadays pretty well, so I don't see a reason why not to," said Oblak. "So we thought we would make a donation today."

Laura Clementson/CBC

According to Fuenmayor, donations will be going to the employees who were displaced as well as about 50 workers living elsewhere, who could also benefit from the collection of items.

"We are going to share with everyone," she said.

The Sikking family thanked the community and emergency services in their statement.

"We want to thank the first responders from multiple municipalities.  St. Catharines Fire Department remains on site to ensure the safety of the community.  Additionally, we want to thank the community and local business partners for their outpouring of support.  While we have not specifically requested donations, generous donations of clothing and other supplies have been received on behalf of our migrant workforce."