Sept. 23, 2017 was a mild day, bright and average. I stepped out my front door with the dog and headed east on Queen St. West for our usual morning walk.
As Bear poked along stopping for the mandatory watering of trees and hydrants, I thought I noticed fog several blocks ahead at an intersection. But it was weird fog, moving in a lazy, horizontal fashion down Seventh Avenue. It was not a foggy day. My pulse picked up a little and I quick-stepped back home, grabbed my camera, and drove towards the fog.
As I neared downtown Virden, the haze resolved into smoke billowing from the worst possible place - the middle of a block of cheek-to-cheek century buildings in the heritage part of Virden.
Firefighters were already there pouring water on The Source store where the smoke was, so far, contained. The cold water on flames made a hissing sound not quite loud enough to drown out the crackle.
The bystanders looked like they’d been there a while. Some had coffee mugs and furrowed brows. It was 7:30 a.m. and they said the fire had started before dawn. I thought, “Well no, this isn’t possible. I didn’t hear the siren go off. Or the fire truck sirens. So… no.”
A cluster of people made room for me at the corner of Nelson and Seventh in front of the Scotia Bank, sharing what little information they had. I took some pictures, made small talk, and felt strangely annoyed. Why can’t they put it out? Why is it still burning? What’s the problem here?
As we stood and watched, the flames were already moving into the Future Features building next door to the Source, although we wouldn’t know that until smoke began rising from its roof, too.
This was starting to look like a disaster.
If Future Features went, there was another large and deep century building next to it housing Equipment for Independence, the physiotherapy office, and the health store. Beyond that was the clothing / sports store and the pharmacy at the corner.
I borrowed a cell phone and called Frank who owned the next building. I left a message and hoped he wouldn’t hear the shake in my voice: “Have you heard there’s a fire downtown? And I don’t want to worry you, but it’s spreading and… and…”
I had to be at work by 8:30 a.m. The floor-to-ceiling windows of the dealership faced the centre of town so all day the other staff and I checked the smoke, looking for signs it was fizzling out.
Someone said when the dark smoke turns light grey, it means the burning has turned to steaming, a good sign. So we watched for grey and eventually it came.
Only later did we learn at what cost.
On my lunch break I went back downtown. The mayor was there at some point, I don’t recall when, looking pale and sick. Everyone just stared at the smoke, the charred brick, the firefighters pouring water on a lost cause, a track hoe rumbling down the street past the barricades.
A track hoe? Oh. Right. Damn.
We watched in disbelief as the big machine’s bucket clawed at the walls and beams and bricks, sending them crashing to the sidewalk, the only way to stop the flames.
The sun was shining on this destruction and the blue sky did not suit the day.
But it worked. After a 15-hour fight, the fire was stopped, no one was hurt, and even a resident cat survived after being rescued by firefighters.
“Just buildings and they can be replaced,” as people always say after such a thing.
But can they? It’s now been a year. The skin and bones of lost history have been hauled away and the basements filled in and leveled.
One exposed wall has been stuccoed over, neat and tidy, but the opposite one hasn’t, and its blackened bricks are as ugly as a bad dream.
The rooftop pigeons are the only ones who don’t seem to mind. They coo and flap noisily, knowing their world hasn’t changed. But ours has.