Teens arrested in Bella Bella fire

Community re-opens grocery store in United Church after blaze levels 35-year-old structure.

BELLA BELLA—Three teenage girls have been arrested in the wake of a Friday morning fire that destroyed the grocery store and post office in this remote island community, RCMP announced Monday.

The girls, ages 13, 15 and 16, were arrested within hours of the initial fire and police response.

“RCMP and fire investigators will forward a report of their findings to the crown for their review, in order to determine whether charges against the girls are appropriate,” RCMP Cpl. Dan Moskaluk said Monday in a written release.

The community wasted no time rallying to restore services lost when the fire, which broke out about 4 a.m. Friday, razed the 35-year-old wooden building and left the community without its only grocery store and several other services.

An emergency meeting was called by the Heiltsuk First Nation council Friday evening to establish short-, medium- and long-term processes to restore grocery distribution and other services.

About 60 hours later, at 10 a.m. Monday, the local United Anglican Church opened as a temporary grocery store. The Heiltsuk elders’ building is serving as the post office.

“The church has been transformed into a small grocery store for the moment,” said Marilyn Slett, Chief Councilor for the band. “The (grocery) supplier we use brought up some supplies on the ferry on the weekend and we had some trailers unloaded Sunday. Even before that, we had construction crews and volunteers inside, building shelves.”

“It’s certainly a lot smaller in scope, and it’s just a temporary solution, but it’s what we’ll be using for our grocery needs right now.”

A website — rebuildbellabella.tumblr.com — was set up Friday afternoon up to collect donations via Paypal, and by the next morning had generated more than $3,000, Slett said.

“That was put to use right away,” she added. “We sent cubes down on the ferry overnight, and some band members shopped at Overwaitea (Foods in Port Hardy). Those cubes were filled with food and distributed to the community when the ferry got back.”

Supplying food to the community of about 1,500 was the most pressing concern in the wake of the fire. But the destroyed building also housed the village’s post office, library and liquor store. The non-profit Kvai Cafe was in the basement; its staff hosted cultural camps which have been suspended for at lease a week.

Slett said donations of books have already started coming in to replace what was lost when the fire destroyed the local library

Due to the close proximity of several gas and diesel tanks at the local gas bar, RCMP initiated an evacuation of the local hospital and several residences in the area while firefighters battled the blaze. Members of Health Emergency Management BC were contacted to assist the community in the aftermath of the disaster.

“We’re just so thankful no lives were lost,” said Slett. “It’s definitely going to be a challenge for our community to rebuild.”

The rebuildbellabella website will remain active for those who wish to provide financial assistance. Slett said generous assistance from a number of quarters is already easing the pain of the loss suffered in the fire.

“It helps our recovery process, the help we’ve received from all our neighbours — other First nations neighbours, Port Hardy, BC Ferries, Pacific Coastal Airlines. They’ve been wonderful.”