In the dead of night on Jan. 20, little did Iglulik fire chief Julius Panimera know he was about to confront the biggest emergency of his firefighting career.

A bylaw officer showed up at his door with urgency around 3:30 a.m., whisking him off to the local Co-op retail store, where a fire was raging.

“There was black smoke coming from both doors and there was fire from underneath,” Panimera said of the building.

The fire department’s 10 other volunteers were alerted to the blaze by the community’s emergency siren.

The hamlet’s only fire engine – a 1999 model – was driven to the site. The municipality’s four water trucks were also pressed into service.

Local Rangers assisted with crowd control as a growing number of residents were attracted to the catastrophe.

It was cold – in the -40 C range with the windchill – as a steady breeze blew from the south. The wind would later gust to as high as 65 kilometres per hour.

“I called the fire marshal as soon as I knew I couldn’t extinguish it,” Panimera said, admitting the task was too immense for his brigade and the equipment at their disposal.

They made a tremendous effort, however, battling the flames for up to 18 hours. One of the critical details over that period was ensuring that the four hoses didn’t get kinked because any impediment to the flow of water meant that it could quickly turn to ice in the frigid temperatures, Panimera explained.

The fire truck froze up at 2 p.m., making the water trucks all the more pivotal in combatting the blaze.

Six firefighters from Iqaluit arrived around 3:30 p.m.

A column of smoke rising into the sky was visible to the incoming crew as their plane approached for a landing, said Landis Carmichael, deputy fire chief of Iqaluit Emergency Services.

Iglulik firefighters combat the blaze that destroyed the community’s Co-op on Jan. 20. “I’ve been given a lot of thank-yous from the locals,” says Fire Chief Julius Panimera. “(People) say that I’m a good man and whatnot, and they appreciate me for what I do. I just keep on telling them, ‘Don’t thank me, thank the firefighters.'” photo courtesy of Steve Qaatani Sarpinak

“There were still significant fire conditions. The structure had collapsed except for two remaining end walls,” were Carmichael’s initial observations.

Although a number of additional hazards were identified – live ammunition, fuel, propane tank storage and household chemicals – most of those items had been destroyed by the time the Iqaluit firefighters were on the ground, according to Carmichael.

Panimera did get one break in the action, spending from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the local health centre, where he was checked for smoke inhalation and given oxygen. He also caught a short nap.

Then he returned and resumed his duties.

The scene was finally cleared around 10 p.m. on Jan. 20.

“The building is a complete loss,” Carmichael stated.

Communities helping communities

Calling in relief from Iqaluit meant that members of the two fire departments had to quickly figure out how to work in harmony.

Once we arrive, we liaise with the team on the ground, develop a plan and put it in place to stabilize the incident and get the fire out as soon as possible,” Carmichael said.

“I think we all worked very well as a group and (I) am glad that there were no injuries or fatalities throughout the process.”

He added that he’d met Panimera while the Iglulik fire chief was in Iqaluit for a course over the summer.

“So having that previous relationship helped build trust quickly.”

And the helping hands were appreciated.

It was an honour to fight the fire side by side with them,” Panimera said of his brethren from the territorial capital.

qaluit’s deputy fire chief also had praise for the efforts of the Iglulik volunteers, who’d been on the go for close to 12 hours before backup arrived from the city.

“What I can say is that the community came together as a whole in a time of emergency and kept a bad situation from getting worse.

“The potential for a fire of this size to spread to adjacent buildings is significant,” said Carmichael.

In 2018, it was Iqaluit that required assistance from other communities when the NorthMart warehouse was fully engulfed in flames.

Firefighters came to the rescue from Kinngait and Pangnirtung.

“When our help was requested for the Iglulik fire, our firefighters stepped up without hesitation,” said Amy Elgersma, Iqaluit’s chief administrative officer. “We are pleased that we were able to help. It’s really great to see this level of co-operation between Nunavut’s municipalities.”

Fire chief thinking long-term

Panimera, a 23-year-old who has been a member of the Iglulik Fire Department for six years and fire chief for almost three, said there have been attempts to recruit more volunteers in the community but it’s not easy.

“A lot of people get panicked when they see fire,” he said.

He signed up when a friend encouraged him. There were only six members of the local brigade at that time.

Over his years of experience, Panimera has helped to fight close to 40 fires, most of them being shacks and storage sheds, also some vehicles that were burning.

He was in Iqaluit again in late January, this time for incident commander training, which better prepares him for coordinating resources at fire scenes.

“I am planning on being fire chief for the next 40 years,” Panimera said.

“I’ve been given a lot of thank-yous from the locals… (people) say that I’m a good man and whatnot, and they appreciate me for what I do. I just keep on telling them, ‘Don’t thank me, thank the firefighters.'”

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