Old Montreal fire came close to damaging historically important site

A fire in Old Montreal Thursday that left at least one person missing also came close to damaging important historical assets housed in a museum wing next door.

Firefighters continued to spray water on the smouldering greystone at the intersection of Place d’Youville and Saint-Nicolas Street on Friday morning, but they were not yet venturing inside until structural engineers declared the building safe to enter.

“If we are able to go inside, we have to determine the cause of the fire and if the person who is missing is inside the building or not — that’s what we have to confirm,” said Martin Guilbeault, a division chief for the Montreal fire department.

Nine people, three of whom had serious injuries, were transported to the hospital.

Guilbeault said he was unsure if the building had functional smoke detectors because firefighters had not yet been inside.

The historic character of the neighbourhood — the building was built in 1890 to house the headquarters of the Ogilvie Milling Company — prompted the fire department to call in reinforcements to prevent the flames from spreading.

“It makes us a bit more challenging to work for us,” Guilbeault said of the age of the building and those that surround it. But he added that there was little to no additional risk of fires in Old Montreal compared to other neighbourhoods.

“It’s not very often that we have fires in Old Montreal,” he said.

Firetrucks on a street in front of a charred building.
Firefighters are shown at the scene of a fire in Old Montreal, Thursday, March 16, 2023. Residents have been evacuated and multiple people have been treated for injuries. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)
The flames did not spread to neighbouring buildings, to the relief of staff at the Pointe-à-Callière archaeology and history museum. The building that is the site of Fort Ville-Marie, and which houses the museum’s archives is just one wall away from the one that burned.

Anne Élisabeth Thibeault, the museum’s executive director, said she felt heartache as she watched the flames threaten so much history, but she was relieved to learn the building was mostly spared.

“The good news today is that the damage is mostly smoke. The site, artifacts, archives that are preserved in the building that’s just adjacent to the fire are safe,” she said. “We’re currently entering the building … we’re relieved that not much damage was done to the archeological site.”

Thibeault said the Fort Ville-Marie site, which is open to the public, will remain closed until staff can ensure it is safe for visitors. The main Pointe-à-Callière visitors’ centre, which is one block to the east, will reopen on Wednesday. It was undamaged, but heavy smoke from the fire entered its ventilation system.

“We could have experienced a real loss of a very precious historical site,” Thibeault said.

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