Friday, March 24, 2023

Pioneer Square Mall in Mill Bay ‘totally lost’ after third blaze

The part of the building nearest to the highway was still standing Friday afternoon, but other parts had caved in. Bystanders cheered as crews demolished what was left of the building.

Much of the Pioneer Square Mall in Mill Bay collapsed Friday in the third blaze at the empty building in six months.

The part of the building nearest to the highway was still standing Friday afternoon, but other parts had caved in. Bystanders cheered as crews demolished what was left of the building.

The fire appeared to be largely out by 4 pm

Reached by phone at the scene of the fire earlier Friday afternoon, Mill Bay Fire Chief Ron Beck said the building was “totally lost,” before adding: “It’s collapsing, I gotta go.”

Heavy smoke billowed across the highway, which was closed in both directions at Shawnigan-Mill Bay Road.

Traffic was detoured via Cobble Hill Road and Shawnigan Lake Road, according to Emcon, which maintains the highways. Oversized vehicles were directed to take West Shawnigan Lake Road.

Firefighters with Malahat Fire Rescue and Cowichan Bay Fire Rescue were also at the scene.

A fire truck could be seen shooting water onto the building from above.

The Mill Bay Fire Department responded to similar fires at the 12,000-square-foot structure, built in 1972, in February and November.

Mill Bay resident Craig Perdue said Friday’s fire marked the fourth time he has seen the building ablaze.

Perdue said he and his two sons were walking to a fun fair at George Bonner Elementary School when they saw the fire about 12:30 pm “There were 10-foot flames out the top” and about 15 fire trucks at the scene, he said .

Bob Parent, a volunteer with the Mill Bay and District Conservation Society, said he was worried about runoff from the fire polluting Shawnigan Creek.

“This is where the [coho] smolts are starting to come down … that we’ve put up there,” Parent said. “All of this could have been avoided had this been knocked down sooner.”

Lora Naherniak, who lives in Shawnigan Lake, agreed, saying the building “should have been ripped down years ago.”

“I’d say that it was like tinder, more than tinder.”

The fire could have been much worse, she said, had it happened when the weather was hotter.

Tony Sullivan, who has been staying with his son in Mill Bay for a few months since his own home burned down, came out to see what was happening. He called the building an “eyesore.”

“Whoever owns it, they were in the process of taking it apart. It was an event like this waiting to happen, old tar paper and old wood stacked in one place,” he said.

Pioneer Square is part of a land parcel called the Stonebridge Property in Mill Bay, put together over three generations by the Garnett family.

The property was acquired by the Victoria-based Limona Group, a development company.

Limona has plans for a large master-planned community on part of the Stonebridge lands, and does intend to redevelop the 6.25 acres on which Pioneer Square sits.

Mike Baier, principal with Limona, said the company hasn’t been able to move its plans for the site forward yet, though they have been in the works for years.

He said a demolition permit was issued in the spring for the restaurant building to the south of the site behind Pioneer Square. That restaurant has since been razed and Limona is in the midst of a “nasty” environmental cleanup, he said.

“Now we have a nastier thing with [Pioneer Square],” Baier said.

Baier said Limona has had crews working to de-construct Pioneer Square, but has had to spend up to six figures on site security, as each time it boarded up the property, someone would break in and make a mess or set a fire.

He said the company has had people at the site three to five times a day trying to thwart the break-ins.

The 6.25-acre property is valued at $1.436 million by BC Assessment.

— With a file from Pedro Arrais

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