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Fort Good Hope's Northern store burned to the ground on Monday, Dec. 14, as firefighters worked from around 3 p.m. to after 10 p.m. No one was injured but the fire was deemed suspicious and is still under investigation by the N.W.T. fire marshal's office. - photo courtesy of Vivian Edgi-Manuel

Northern store fire 'suspicious'

Katie May
Northern News Services
Published Monday, December 21, 2009

RADILIH KOE'/FORT GOOD HOPE - The fire at Fort Good Hope's Northern Store has been deemed suspicious by the N.W.T. Fire Marshal's office, said RCMP.

The store was completely destroyed by a blaze Dec. 14. Fort Good Hope RCMP said the fire marshal's office ruled out accidental causes in the fire. The Mounties, with the assistance of the G Division major crimes unit, continue to investigate the fire as arson.

Fort Good Hope RCMP said they also continue their investigation into two Dec. 10 fires in the community but said at this time, the store fire does not seem to be linked to the two previous ones.

Staff at the store called the volunteer fire department around 3 p.m. on Monday when they saw smoke. Eight firefighters arrived 11 minutes later and fought it from the outside until 10:15 p.m. Firefighters decided it was unsafe to enter the building because of the likelihood of the roof collapsing. There had been about 10 people inside the store when the fire started, but they escaped safely after seeing the smoke, volunteer firefighter Greg Laboucan said.

"It took roughly seven-and-a-half hours by the time we made the decision to just let the structure burn because we'd contained the fire on the site there and secured the buildings surrounding the Northern store," said Laboucan, who is also the community's senior administrative officer. He added that firefighters used about 227,000 litres of water trying to quench the fire. They also cut through an exterior wall to remove gun shells and ammunition from a back storeroom for fear of an explosion.

The site of the store continued to smoulder Tuesday evening. The community held a public meeting the day after the fire to address residents' concerns.

"Right now we're meeting and trying to look for a temporary setup for the Northern store, initially for the next month or so but (also) kind of a permanent location for the next year while they re-construct the store and build a new one," Laboucan said.

Chief Arthur Tobac said many elders were worried about how they would receive their mail and do their banking, since the store had accepted phone and electricity bill payments and had housed the community's only ATM machine.

A temporary post office will be the first thing the community sets up when officials decide on a location, Laboucan said on Wednesday. He said the school was being considered as a "last resort."

In the meantime, the local Co-op store has ordered more food and supplies, including Christmas turkeys and hams, in preparation for the influx of customers.

J. Doug Louison, a former fire chief in the community, said the fire was "devastating," especially after two separate fires the week before destroyed the former band office and a vacant house.

"It's the main place everybody goes for mail, food," he said. Plus, it's been there for years, since the 1960s, so the building was pretty old."

About 10 Northern store employees are out of jobs as Christmas approaches. Cody McNeely, 14, worked at the store part-time. He was in school on Monday afternoon when he heard the sirens.

"Then somebody runs into my classroom and says 'the store's on fire!' And I ran over there and I looked at it," he said. "I was pretty shocked. I thought, 'oh no, that's my work!' You know, I thought 'what am I going to do for money now?'"

When the the winter road to Norman Wells is open, Fort Good Hope residents can make the 3.5-hour drive to the Norman Wells Northern Store to go shopping.

Co-op store manager Dana Pippy said he's ordering twice as many shipments of everyday supplies such as cleaning products. "I think our sales have doubled and then some," he said."

An estimation of damages caused by the fire was not immediately available. The Northern store had just finished renovations last month costing upwards of $250,000.

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