UPDATED: Arson suspected in Grand Forks Hotel and Winnipeg Hotel fires

The Grand Forks Hotel has been completely destroyed and the Winnipeg Hotel damaged due to a pair of fires early Wednesday.

Editor’s note: Story has been adjusted to include updated information, including estimated number of volunteer firefighters, Christina Lake Fire Rescue and suspect.

The historic Grand Forks Hotel has been completely destroyed and the landmark Winnipeg Hotel damaged due to a pair of early-morning fires on March 7.

According to Boundary Regional RCMP, police were responding to a report of a fire at the Grand Forks Hotel at about 3 a.m. when a fire was detected at the Winnipeg Hotel on Central Avenue in Grand Forks.

Christopher James Cusack, 47, has been charged with two counts of arson, which endangered human life. Police initially considered both cases to be arson due to the suspicious nature of both fires.

Grand Forks RCMP’s Staff Sgt. Jim Harrison said that while police are “tying up loose ends” in the investigation, they are still appealing to the public.

“If anybody witnessed anything suspicious or anyone near those two hotels around the time that we believe the fire would’ve started, if someone could come forward and give us information on that we’d appreciate it still,” Harrison said, adding that police have already canvassed the area.

“We’d like to put that appeal out in case someone was out walking their dog and saw someone (suspicious).”

Police constables first entered the smoke-filled Winnipeg Hotel early on March 7 and ensured all occupants were evacuated prior to the fire department’s arrival and then headed to the Grand Forks Hotel, where it was determined that all guests were safely out of the building and accounted for.

Firefighters fought both fires (arriving at the Winnipeg Hotel fire first) and while the Grand Forks Hotel was completely destroyed, the fire department was able to protect surrounding buildings.

Due to the damage sustained to the Grand Forks Hotel, traffic was initially re-routed around the Highway 3 and 2nd Street area in order to protect the public from possible collapse of the hotel wall but an excavator brought the wall down at around 11:30 a.m. March 7.

The firefighters managed to extinguish the blaze at the Winnipeg Hotel and damage was limited to the back of the building, although there was smoke damage throughout.

Dale Heriot, acting fire chief for Grand Forks Fire Rescue, estimated that between 30 and 35 volunteer firefighters battled the blaze.

He was grateful for Ken Gresley-Jones and Christina Lake Fire Rescue, who sent out vehicles and firefighters  to assist with fighting the fires.

“Our crew did a fantastic job, especially on the Winnipeg Hotel, of saving that one. It was a really good job and they also did a good job on (the Grand Forks Hotel),” he said.

Heriot said that the investigator with the Office of the Fire Commissioner completed the two investigations on Friday afternoon but the case is still ongoing.

While there wasn’t anything new to report (as of Monday morning), he did release the Winnipeg Hotel back to owner Evelyn Rougeau.

“I’m not sure if anyone is back inside yet but I did release it back to the owner on Friday afternoon,” he said.

Heriot said that it could be some time before information on the investigation would be released. “By the time they compile all the information and all that kind of stuff, I’m guessing it will be a little while,” he said.

There are no casualties and injuries resulting from the fires and Harrison said that RCMP would also be working with Office of the Fire Commissioner investigators on the case.

Emergency Social Services was contacted to assist with displaced residents, which were 15 in number – eight from the Grand Forks and seven from the Winnipeg according to Regional District of Kootenay Boundary Emergency Social Services director Jane Pring.

“Under my mandate, I gave (displaced residents) three days food, clothing (up to $100) and lodging,” Pring said, adding that after the three days, financial assistance services took over.

Mandy Nordahn, co-owner of the Grand Forks Hotel and Restaurant, was visibly shaken by the incident.

“I feel horrible, devastated, sad,” Nordahn said as the excavator was bringing the hotel wall down.

“It’s a lot of work I did to try and make this better. It’s a very sad day for a lot of people who helped me do all this.”

Rougeau could not be reached for comment.

– With files from Cassandra Chin.