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Years after destructive downtown blaze, memories of Five Points fire remain (10 photos)

'When fire is below you and you’re trying to search directly above the fire for trapped occupants, time is of the essence,' says fire chief

A drive through Barrie’s COVID-quiet downtown doesn’t reveal the fury of a massive fire at the Five Points many years ago.

Memories of the night of Dec. 6, 2007 are still vivid for anyone associated with the blaze that led to the evacuation of dozens of people, and required the skills and determination of dozens of firefighters during the ensuing hours and days.

An explosion had rocked a restaurant, sending glass and furniture into the street, starting a fire that would change the iconic Barrie intersection forever.

The northwest corner of the busy Five Points was reduced to rubble and is now an empty lot awaiting redevelopment.

Barrie Fire Chief Cory Mainprize, who was an acting captain at the time, was called in along with numerous other firefighters.

“Knowing that it was an occupied building, my initial reaction was this is going to be a significant tragedy,” Mainprize says of the thoughts going through his head while en route to the blaze. “We had a very well involved (burning) building. It had already partially collapsed.

“Knowing there were what I believed to be occupied apartments directly above and directly to the west of the original fire location, I believed we were going to have some significant injuries or potential casualties,” he adds.

Generally, the older buildings downtown have been renovated a number of times from their original design use, the chief says, adding that can be challenging for firefighters.

“We would describe them as being ‘almost built to burn’,” Mainprize says. “They are very difficult buildings to contain fires in. They have a significant number of rooms and open passageways (along with things like) wire chases, pipe chases.

"Unlike normal buildings with platform construction and sealed fire floors, they are not built like that.”

Firefighters searched in some very difficult conditions  until they were forced to withdraw  while the blaze raged below them.

“Searching above the fire in those types of conditions in old construction  with multiple rooms and multiple hallways  is an extremely dangerous position to be in,” Mainprize says. “When fire is below you and you’re trying to search directly above the fire for trapped occupants, time is of the essence. You are searching in high-heat, zero-visibility conditions.

“You’re trying to stretch a hose line with you down hallways, around corners, through doorways, into rooms, back out of rooms. Those are very dangerous fires to be in.”

Battling the blaze was truly a team effort, says Mainprize, adding many firefighters worked beyond their shift and there was mutual aid, in the form of several apparatus and a couple dozen firefighters, from neighbouring municipalities. 

“They were a huge help in establishing water supplies. A lot of the older downtown area had smaller water mains then that were unable to substantiate significant water flows for a long time,” he says.

“Many of those have now been upgraded in the last couple of years, but at the time that had not happened, so we were drafting water directly from the lake, pumping it up Mulcaster Street to be dispersed to all the different aerial apparatus that were applying water because the old infrastructure at that time could not have supported the amount of water that we needed," the chief adds.

“That’s a once-in-25-years type of fire when you need that level of water, but now we have much better infrastructure in place should that happen again.”

The fire had started around 11 p.m. that night. 

Freelance news photographer Kevin Lamb was right there when it began. Unbeknownst to Lamb, who was shooting Canadian rocker Rik Emmett at a music venue near the Five Points, all hell was breaking loose.

“As soon as I stepped out of the door, I could see the orange glow next door and a firefighter standing there,” he says. “I went from being in a rocking concert to being next to an inferno in an instant. A short time later, they shut down the show and got people away from there.”

Lamb stayed on scene until 3 a.m.

“The mission of the firefighters seemed to be to control its spread to adjacent buildings, which I think they did a great job of doing. I also remember the drama of some of the outer brick walls collapsing, which was quite a thing to witness,” Lamb says. “It reminded me of glacier ice calving in the way they fell.

“There was one photo that I took where a lone firefighter is way up in the air above the open chasm of the building with huge flames. He is just a silhouette and he just seemed helpless spraying water down into it," Lamb adds.

At that point in the night, so much water had been used on the fire and with the temperature well below freezing, everything on the ground was covered in ice.

“I had a hard time walking around at that point, so it was time for me to go. I am still reminded of that night every time I see that spot where it happened, even now," Lamb says. 

Mainprize says firefighters understood the types of issues similar old buildings in the downtown had prior to that night.

“We still have lots of those buildings in existence today and we understand the challenges they present,” the chief says, adding his dark thoughts on the way to the fire thankfully weren’t realized.

“I was surprised there was not loss of life or significant injuries, knowing that those buildings were all occupied with multiple apartments,” Mainprize says. “I am still surprised (to this day) that there wasn’t.”

Former Riviera Restaurant owner Giovanni Cartolano was charged with arson in connection to the $6-million fire, but he was found not guilty more than five years after the blaze. 

The fire also destroyed the neighbouring Royal Thai restaurant and left several people homeless who lived in the apartments above.  

Today at the Five Points  where Bayfield, Dunlop and Clapperton streets intersect  Advance Tech Developments has proposed a 20-storey residential building with more than 200 condominiums, ground-floor commercial and parking at 2-14 Dunlop St. W., 43 and 45 Maple Ave., and 30-42 Bayfield St.

Advance Tech has submitted rezoning and site-plan control applications to the city for this development.

Ian McInroy

About the Author: Ian McInroy

Ian McInroy is an award-winning photographer and journalist with more than 30 years in the industry
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