Shoppers hoping for an early start to their excursions Saturday morning were being turned away by an employee at the Walmart in North Bay after a Friday night fire.
“We’re closed today,” an employee at the Walmart entrance said.
“I heard about it on the news last night,” one shopper who had arrived at about 7:30 a.m. said. “I didn’t think they would still be closed.”
North Bay Fire and Emergency Services responded to the fire at about 9:30 p.m. Store employees and customers were evacuated after the fire was reported at a clothing rack in the men’s wear department.
The fire quickly grew, with the fire soon reaching toward the ceiling and smoke billowing through the store.
Fire Chief Jason Whiteley said Saturday morning that while the fire has not been officially labelled arson, it is “very suspicious.
“It started in the clothing racks,” Whiteley said. “That doesn’t spontaneously combust.”
He said the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit has been called in to determine if any of the food items can be salvaged.
Fire platoon chief Mike Hives told The Nugget the damage is in the millions of dollars.
He confirmed the fire started in the men’s wear section and North Bay police are investigating.
“The store will definitely not be opening tomorrow (Saturday). When it will reopen remains unknown. They may have to throw out all of their inventory. The loss is in the millions.”
Security remains on site.
All three fire stations responded to the alarm activation.
Platoon Chief Mike Newman said Saturday there is no indication at this time of structural damage to the store.
“It was mostly the contents and water damage,” he said.
Sgt. Jason Long of the North Bay Police Service said a joint investigation between the criminal investigation service and the Ontario Fire Marshal is underway.
Employees at other businesses in Northgate Shopping Centre were busy preparing for business Saturday morning.
The fire was a common topic of discussion.
“I feel bad for the employees,” one man said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
He said he was not in the shopping centre when the fire broke out, but had been hearing about it all morning.
He declined to give his name and asked that the business which employs him not be identified.
Employees at other businesses declined to comment.
Whiteley says fire crews “got the fire out pretty quickly,” but there is extensive smoke and water damage.
“As you can imagine, all the clothing these days is made with synthetic materials,” he says, which produces thick, toxic smoke.
Three Walmart stores in the Kitchener-Waterloo area have also recently been struck with suspicious fires.
Ontario’s Office of the Fire Marshal estimated the cost of the three fires – set in the paper products section of the stores in late October – to be more than $12 million.
Two people have been charged in connection with those fires. All three stores are now back in operation.
Whiteley wouldn’t speculate on whether the fires at the various Walmart stores – including several in Western Canada – could be related, saying that is something that will be determined during the investigation.
“It’s hard to say why someone would do something like that,” he says. “I’m not prepared to go there.”