Nearby residents shelter in place as fire engulfs large St. Catharines flower farm

A “significant” fire at a flower farm in St. Catharines, Ont., has been contained, but residents in a large area northwest of the massive greenhouse operation are still being asked to shelter in place, an official says.

No one has been injured in the blaze at Pioneer Flower Farms, 1900 Seventh St., that began late on Friday night, according to Jeff McCormick, acting fire chief for St. Catharines Fire and Emergency Management Services. Fire crews were called to the farm shortly after 11 p.m.

Smoke, however, remains a concern. Officials from Ontario’s ministry of the environment are on the scene monitoring air quality.

“There are still ongoing efforts to gain control and to extinguish the fire. Right now, we have the fire contained, but we expect that we will be here for a significant number of hours yet,” McCormick told reporters on Saturday about 500 metres from the fire.

Up to 125 firefighters involved at peak of blaze

Crews from five departments were able to contain the blaze after several hours of effort. As many as 125 firefighters were battling the blaze at the height of the fire, he said.

Crews worked all night to bring the fire under control. (David Ritchie)

The fire is in a structure that is a series of greenhouses and outbuildings and about 650,000 to 700,000 square feet in total.

“It’s a significant-sized fire,” McCormick said. “Probably, this would be the most significant fire that I have had of my 33-year career.”

Ontario’s Office of the Marshal is also on scene to investigate. A drone will be sent out to help fire crews get a sense of the size and scope of the blaze.

Residents in the area northwest of the fire are being asked to close doors and windows and turn off air conditioning.

Jeff McCormick, acting fire chief for St. Catharines Fire and Emergency Management Services, said he expects crews to be at the scene for some time. (Angelina King/CBC)

John Van Geest, a longtime neighbour and friend, said the farm owners had been celebrating another business’s 40th anniversary last night when they saw black smoke — and ran from a celebration to a disaster.

“It’s devastating to see them lose what they’ve worked the last 48 years to build up,” said Van Geest, who co-owns a greenhouse across the road. The farm offered jobs for many people in the community, Van Geest said, as well as several migrant workers.

He said he’s spoken to the owners, who kept talking about how they felt for their employees.

John Van Geest, who co-owns a greenhouse across the road, has known the farm owners for the last 30 years. (Angelina King/CBC)

Van Geest ​​​​​said he knows how devastating fire can be, having suffered a much smaller blaze a few years ago. He helped unload items from the house and prevent the spread of the fire last night.

“We all know each other, we all work together in the industry. We look out for each other,” he said. “There’s … so little anyone can do to mitigate this disaster.”

Structure collapsed, fell before crews arrived

When firefighters arrived on the scene, they encountered difficulty immediately because one structure had already collapsed and fallen, hampering the efforts of trucks to reach the fire.

McCormick said there are no municipal fire hydrants in the area, which he described as the rural end of St. Catharines, and tanker tanks were called to the scene from neighbouring departments to set up a water supply.

Thick black smoke billowed from buildings as fire crews on ladders tried to douse the flames.  (David Ritchie)

Firefighters from St. Catharines, Thorold, Pelham, Lincoln and Niagara-on-the-Lake were involved in efforts to bring the blaze under control. Early Saturday, firefighters from Fort Erie relieved crews that worked through the night.

“Certainly, it was a long evening for all involved and full credit to all the men and women who were here,” he said.

Thick black smoke billowed from buildings as fire crews on ladders tried to douse the flames. 

Fire destroyed housing for migrant workers

According to the city of St. Catharines in a news release, the fire spread into bushes behind the buildings and caused a significant bush fire.

The fire then spread to about four or five residential buildings that house migrant workers and destroyed those buildings, McCormick added. 

Workers were in the buildings when the fire started but they were able to get out in time and the owner is looking after them, he said.

As for residents sheltering in place, McCormick could not say how many are affected.

A fire at a flower farm in St. Catharines, Ont., is now contained but not yet extinguished. (Angelina King/CBC)

Residents told to stay put until further notice

Stephanie Sabourin, spokesperson for the Niagara police, told CBC Toronto that the shelter-in-place warning applies to a large area south of Queen Elizabeth Way, near Seventh Street South, she said.

The wind shifted early Saturday and Sabourin said the shelter-in-place order was adjusted accordingly.

“We do have a large area surrounding the active fire that we have residents who are asked to shelter in place,” Sabourin said.

“We are asking residents to stay inside, close their windows, close their doors, turn off their air conditioning and just stay put and to wait for further instruction.”

Sabourin could not say when the shelter-in-place will be lifted.

“There is some concern with the smoke. It’s a pretty dynamic situation. We do have resources on the scene examining and monitoring the scene,” she said.

Sabourin described the fire as “substantial.”

Deputy Fire Chief Dave Upper tweeted this photo, saying crews were still working on hot spots Saturday afternoon. (Dave Upper/Twitter)

Neighbours set up pipeline to bring water to fire

Many people from the area, including neighbours, came to the farm to help. At one point, they set up an irrigation pipeline to bring water to one part of the fire.

Cause of the fire has not been determined,.

Roads continue to be closed in the area, which is not densely populated. People are being asked to stay away from the area.

Pioneer Flower Farms, according to its website, is one of the largest “bulb forcing” farms in North America. It works with bulb stock growers in the Netherlands to produce cut flowers and potted plants.