Bright orange flames and a thick plume of black smoke made for a dramatic scene in Gjoa Haven on March 26 as fire destroyed the community’s Government Building.

“It looked bad,” Gjoa Haven MLA Tony Akoak said of the devastating emergency. “It was awful to see.”

The ensuing scramble has caused some GN services that were formerly hosted in the 6,400-square-foot building to alter procedures while other services are temporarily suspended.

The blaze started on Saturday afternoon. Fire chief Hector Nargyak made a public plea for residents to stay away from the intense fire as the volunteer brigade was waiting for the building’s fuel tank to “calm down.”

Nargyak informed the community that night that the fire was out of control and it would be left to burn on the advice of the assistant fire marshal.

“We were told to just let it go,” he stated, adding that RCMP would provide overnight security at the site.

Akoak offered praise for the firefighters’ efforts.

“I’m so happy with the firefighters … they were at the fire for over 12 hours. They must be pretty tired,” he said. “They couldn’t save the building but at least they kept everybody safe.”

Mayor Megan Porter also applauded everyone who worked “tirelessly.”

“Our local fire department and municipal service staff worked so very hard to control the blaze, even though a number of them are dealing with their own personal situations of loss and grief. To the RCMP and hamlet staff who assisted with ground control, communications and evacuation notices, the hamlet staff, volunteers and the Northern store who assisted with meal and beverage preparations, and the public for diligently following the guidance to avoid the area when asked to do so, thank you,” Porter stated. “While the building may be a total loss, our community came together in a time of need, regardless of our individual situations and indifferences. I’m very proud of each and every one of you. No lives were lost, no serious injuries sustained.”

The building — opened in 1999 and located in a central part of the community, near the high school and arena — was a workplace for 10 employees in various GN departments and was a “telecommunications hub,” containing Gjoa Haven’s main fibre connection, workstations, community data centre, servers, and telephone and video conferencing services, according to Community and Government Services (CGS). On March 28, CGS Minister David Joanasie extended his gratitude to employees working to restore services and to residents for their “continued flexibility during this challenging time.” He added that additional staff and resources would be sent to the community.

The GN was assessing the internal and external losses as a result of the blaze last week and would introduce work-from-home measures, where possible, in the interim, according to the minister. The community’s continuing care centre will temporarily act as a home for the primary data centre. Network operations are anticipated to be re-established by March 31 while infrastructure, servers and backup restores are anticipated to be re-established by April 1, CGS noted.

The last condition assessment on the Government Building was performed on Dec. 22, 2017, according to CGS.

CGS stated that the Nunavut Fire Marshal’s Office is investigating the fire and has no comment on a possible cause as of March 30.

The GN’s March 28 update stated that the Department of Education would partner with the district education authority to establish a temporary fire watch for both schools, beginning on March 28.

Fact file

Affected services

Department of Economic Development and Transportation:

– In-person motor vehicles services in Gjoa Haven are suspended, including the issuing of drivers licences, general identification cards, and driver examinations.

– Residents of Gjoa Haven can visit www.gov.nu.ca/motorvehicles or email MotorVehicles@gov.nu.ca regarding drivers licence renewals, general identification card renewals and vehicle registration renewals; requests for driver’s abstracts, vehicle searches and accident reports.

Department of Health:

– The Community Health Centre will operate with some service reductions due to landlines, fax machines and digital services such as Meditech being unavailable. The department is sending laptops and data sticks to reconnect staff to Meditech and other digital services.

– Staff will continue to provide services and respond to community needs using cellphones and paper charts.

– Diagnostic imaging continues, but there may be a delay in physician review until digital services are restored.

Department of Education:

– Devices previously distributed to Gjoa Haven school staff for use during Covid-19 lockdowns will be available for staff to access GN email and the Student Information System.

Department of Justice:

– Delays may be expected for some services, including financial processing, legal aid application and legal aid approval processes.

Department of Family Services:

– To access the Family Wellness division in Gjoa Haven, please call 867-222-3906 to connect with a social worker on-call or 1-844-392-4453 to connect with the territory-wide contact.

– To contact an income assistance worker in Gjoa Haven, please call 867-202-4194 or 1-800-661-0845 to reach the regional office.

– Beginning in April, income assistance will return to regular assessments. Clients can come to the Income Support Office to speak to staff and complete the necessary documents. Payments will be issued remotely from the regional office and will be available direct-to-store.

Derek Neary

Derek Neary has been reporting on developments in the North for 18 years. When he's not writing for Nunavut News, he's working on Northern News Services' special publications such as Opportunities North,...

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