House fire in Neepawa points to larger issues for newcomers

·5 min read

Ten newcomers who lived in a house that burned down in Neepawa last week are not to blame for the structure’s demise, says the chief of the local fire department.

As reported by the Sun Tuesday, a century-old home located at 281 Mill St. in Neepawa, located 76 kilometres from Brandon, burned down in a blaze that took firefighters three and a half hours to subdue.

The fire, which broke out just before 2 p.m. Friday, started in the attic, according to Yves Guillas, chief of the Neepawa Fire Department.

Though the cause of the fire is still under investigation, Guillas said it was not suspicious in nature. He expects the investigation to wrap up by the end of the week.

The Manitoba Office of the Fire Commissioner told the Sun the fire was still under investigation and that the office had “nothing to add at this time.”

The house, originally built in 1892, was constructed with “balloon framing,” Guillas said, which is a style of wood-house building that uses long, vertical two-by-fours for the exterior wall. These long studs extend uninterrupted from the sill on the top of the foundation all the way up to the roof.

Because of the house’s balloon framing, and its lathe-and-plaster walls, consisting of narrow strips of wood nailed horizontally across wall studs that are coated in plaster, the fire department had trouble reaching the attic, since a hole couldn’t be punched in the wall like it could be in more modern-built homes that use drywall.

“What we ended up doing … was getting fed up and pulling [the attic] off with a hoe, and taking the second storey right off,” Guillas explained.

Since firefighters were unable to access the attic, it is difficult to ascertain whether or not working smoke detectors were installed on that level of the house, though Guillas added that there was evidence of the safety devices on the main floor of the home.

Neepawa and Area Immigrant Settlement Services confirmed that the 10 people who rented the house had all moved from the Philippines, and the Town of Neepawa told the Sun that they were brought to the community by HyLife Foods Ltd., a pork processing plant just outside Neepawa.

The newcomers were not prepared for how things work in Canada in terms of securing reliable housing and proper safety procedures during a fire, Guillas said. While overcrowding was not an issue in this case, he said, it is a problem that newcomers experience in Neepawa due to a lack of rental properties.

“This is a problem we have … a lack of space, lack of everything, and we’re working through the problems, but it’s just not happening fast enough,” Guillas said. “It’s not their fault there’s not enough housing to live in properly, and it’s not their fault that the business they’re coming to [work for] isn’t doing enough for them.”

However, according to HyLife public relations and communications manager Stacey Ashley, the company “immediately rallied” behind the newcomers following the fire by working with the town and social services, paying for temporary accommodations, purchasing household supplies, and offering mental health resources.

“Our company is committed to ensuring our newcomer employees successfully transition through full settlement sessions with police, fire, public health, finance, and other stakeholders,” Ashley said in an email Wednesday, adding that HyLife recently invested in Howden House, a brand-new housing complex in Neepawa scheduled to open in the next few weeks.

“This will be home to new temporary foreign workers as they settle in. Our leadership also continues to proactively work alongside the town of Neepawa to ensure safe housing is accessible,” Ashley wrote.

A housing shortage is something the town has been dealing with ever since HyLife Foods began bringing people in from overseas to work, Colleen Synchyshyn, the town’s chief administrative officer, said.

She said it was a cause-and-effect cycle. The town is attempting to ease the problem with the development of new subdivisions, but it’s not an issue that’s going to disappear any time soon.

“That doesn’t happen overnight,” Synchyshyn said.

When newcomers from the Philippines first arrive in Canada, there is a lot of confusion and, in some cases, hesitation on when to call police and first responders, Guillas said he has noticed. He encourages people to contact him through the town office for assistance on this matter.

In a video he was shown of the fire, Guillas noticed that flames were already shooting out of the house before the fire department was called to the scene. People shouldn’t hesitate to call the fire department when a fire breaks out, he said, noting that Friday’s fire could have ended more tragically.

“I’m glad nobody lost their lives in this thing. If this was one o’clock in the morning, we could have been talking about a whole different thing here. That’s the thing that scares me.”

Guillas retrieved all but one person’s documentation, such as passports, from the home on Monday, and was even able to recover a few treasured personal items for the residents.

Neepawa and Area Immigrant Settlement Services is working closely with the residents to secure new housing, executive director Don Walmsley said.

St. Dominic’s Roman Catholic Church, located at 416 First Ave., is calling for donations of men’s size medium to large, women’s size medium and tween girl clothing, as well as monetary donations. The donations can be dropped off at the church during office hours, which are from Wednesday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and closed during the lunch hour.

Trudi McCarthy, a parishioner of St. Domninic’s, hopes people will be generous to the newcomers, who were invited, and attended, a luncheon at the church on Sunday.

“They pretty much lost everything,” McCarthy said.

Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun