A fire outside of UMSU University Centre (UC) Friday caused extensive property damage and destroyed student group merchandise.
No injuries were reported in a fire that university spokesperson John Danakas said was likely caused by a discarded cigarette that came in contact with a pallet left behind by students participating in last week’s 5 Days for the Homeless campaign.
Five students lived and slept outside the east entrance to UC — facing the administration building — to raise awareness and funds for local youth homelessness initiatives. Most of their things were packed up Thursday but several pallets, some with stacked cardboard, were left behind.
The Asper School of Business Commerce Students’ Association, which organized the event, issued a release Saturday saying “We are heartbroken by the fire and damages caused outside of UMSU University Centre. The sleepers and volunteers are all safe as none were present at the time of the fire.”
A spokesperson for the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service said crews responded just before 1 p.m. The fire caught on to one wall of the building but was under control by 1:30 p.m.
“Upon arrival on scene, crews found a number of pallets stacked on the exterior of University Centre engulfed in flames,” reported the spokesperson.
An update posted to UM Today Saturday called the damages “extensive” and recommended that UC be avoided Monday.
UMSU indicated all its businesses will be closed until further notice while water and smoke damages are assessed.
The damage is primarily water damage from crews suppressing the blaze.
Water made its way through Campo and as far as the tunnel to the Allen Building.
Smoke damage reached all five floors.
“The scale of the impact and damage is extensive,” said the university release, “but efforts are being made to return the building to operations in most areas as soon as possible.”
A building and decorating company has been brought in to help cleanup efforts and engineering and architecture resources will be brought in as needed.
Jakob Sanderson, UMSU president, said Monday that damage to the union’s recently renovated offices was still being assessed but it appeared contained to the boardroom and washrooms.
He said student group offices and potentially food storage for union businesses were more severely affected.
“There might be some significant ramifications but we’re still assessing everything,” he said. “We’re still in conversations with insurance and we don’t really have much of an update.”
All UMSU businesses were closed Monday. As of publication, it remains unclear when they will re-open given precautionary measures taken in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
UMSU chief returning officer Karan Saxena said Friday that much of UC, including his office, was flooded.
He said other offices in the building had been badly damaged.
“A lot of the stuff was soaking, covered in ashes, it was really bad,” he said.
Saxena said the office for student group Justice for Women “took the hardest hit of all of them.”
“I couldn’t see the roof. It was all completely gone.”
The homeless fundraiser had set up camp outside UC, very near Justice for Women’s office.
“It’s a really unfortunate situation and we probably won’t know for a long time why or how it happened but I feel pretty safe in saying it was preventable,” said Justice for Women president Vatineh Magaji in a statement.
“A series of poor choices from multiple people led to a lot of damage and ruined many irreplaceable items.”
The group lost merchandise and items intended for fundraisers with charitable organizations around the city.
“At this point, our group is eagerly awaiting a response from [UMSU] and the organizers of the initiative that is associated with the fire,” said Magaji.
“We’re looking for answers about what steps will be taken to replace what can be replaced in our office and re-homing our group into more suitable arrangements.”
The fire is still under investigation.