Store that survived wildfire destroyed

The Grassy Plains Country Store & Restaurant in the Lakes District west of Prince George somehow survived one of the most devastating wildfire calamities in B.C. history, then promptly burned to the ground Wednesday morning.

Even in the heat of the moment - perhaps because of the moment's heat - it was an irony not lost on the dozens of residents who responded to the Southside blaze.

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One of them, Xandria Ahlbrand, hadn't even showered off the black smoke before she was planning fundraising efforts for the owners, Fayth and Gary Martin.

"All they did through the whole wildfire summer, was give and give and give," said Ahlbrand.

"They worked themselves exhausted, they didn't charge a penny to anyone, and they contributed in every possible way, all summer. Every day, those firefighters had a buffet of free food, they had lunches to go, they had all kinds of supplies, and so did anyone who was in need from the evacuations. The Martins were heroes. That's the only word for it. And now, they have been hit with this terrible loss so we have to show them that they are really appreciated, that we love them for what they did, and for this to happen to them is just crazy. And we're going to help. We're not a community over here, we are a family."

Ahlbrand is unsure if the store and cafe had insurance, but she knows that the losses are inevitably larger than such policies will cover.

The Grassy Plains Store, after all, was the unofficial headquarters of the widespread, rural and geographically isolated Southside community in between Francois and Ootsa Lakes.

The only way into that region other than resource roads is the Francois Lake ferry.

Ahlbrand and her mother Catherine Van Tine Marcinek were driving to work at about 8:15 a.m. and noticed too much smoke coming from a rooftop vent. They pulled in and joined another passerby who had noticed the same. Before long, the black smudge also had traces of flame coming out the vent, and soon the large interior was engulfed in flames.

The store also had an apartment occupied by a mother and two children. The growing cluster of onlookers checked the suite, found it empty, and moved next to clear out the adjacent buildings (one of them was a meat processing operation less than six feet from the store). They found some garden hoses and used them in vain as they waited for the Southside Volunteer Fire Department to arrive.

"They did really good work," said Van Tine Marcinek.

"The firefighters soaked down the buildings nearby and saved them all, everything, except the one store structure," Van Tine Marcinek added.

An estimated 60 people joined the firefighting effort. The store is a short distance from the Grassy Plains School, the community hall isn't much further up the road, and it's the hub of other nearby homes and businesses. There are only a handful of community clusters on the Southside, but Grassy Plains is one of the most notable hamlets in the forestry/agriculture enclave.

Private citizens, fresh off a summer of dogged wildfire fighting, much of it on their own terms, had water trucks and other resources at the ready. The Cheslatta First Nation rolled a number of useful people and materials to the scene.

The firefighters were grateful for the help.

"The 911 call came in about 8:20," said firefighter Axel Orr. "We were on-scene within a half-hour or a bit less. We had three people on-scene from the department with our tanker truck and a rescue truck with foam. We were also helped by a lot of community members and some of their trucks and other resources. It was great to see that big response."

Although there were fuel pumps situated in the parking lot out front of the store, there was no gas or diesel in the underground tanks. That relieved some of the potential danger of the fire.

"Our main concern was the adjacent buildings. We knew as soon as we got there we couldn't save the first building," said Orr. "It's so sad. That's all there is to say about it. The Grassy Store fed firefighters and they fed residents in need all summer long, they did incredible things, they did it all for free at great personal expense to themselves, but they didn't think twice about doing it, and now this happens to them."

The cause of the fire is under investigation. Orr said the origin seemed to be the kitchen, in the vicinity of a deep fryer.

At the time of the fire, Fayth Martin was out of town and husband Gary could only join his neighbours in the effort to spare the adjacent buildings.

The family who lived in the store's suite will be in need of some household items and personal effects, having lost all of their belongings. Donation discussions can be directed to Lisa Orr at 250-694-3609.

The volunteer fire department would also appreciate more personnel. Anyone living in their area who would like to join their ranks is asked to call 250-694-3219.

"We are low in volunteers," said Orr. There are an estimated 1,400 households among the communities of the Southside. "We had three people show up to the call, and two others join in progress. An issue for us is how shorthanded the department is. We have the trucks, the gear, the physical resources, we just need more firefighters. The training isn't intensive, and we need the people. I hope this is an incident that will show people how important the department is and will want to give us a call."

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