ALERT BAY— The community of Alert Bay was given troubling news this week as an investigation into last week’s fire at the U’mista Cultural Centre has investigators now believing that the blaze had a malicious origin.
The fire broke out in the early hours of Tuesday, July 23, and was initially suspected to be the result of an electrical fault in a dehumidifier due to the proximity of the melted husk of the device to the source point.
After examining the scene, the fire inspector has now provided a report stating the blaze had an external source.
Now ‘Namgis Chief Bill Cranmer is appealing to the community to help find those responsible.
In a statement (printed in full on this week’s Letters, page 7,) Cranmer said he was saddened by damage done when he thought it was an electrical fault but even more saddened by the idea that the fire could have been deliberate.
He also underlined the value of the collection, made up of pieces that were confiscated by the government during the 65-year ban on the potlatch. Kwakwaka’wakw peoples began a decades-long fight after the ban was lifted in 1951 to have the irreplaceable masks and regalia returned from museums across the world. The centre itself was constructed by the U’mista Cultural Society to house the returned items.
Thanks to the building’s sprinkler system and a quick response from local firefighters, the world-renowned collection escaped the flames, but suffered water and soot damage.
“The firefighters were on the scene very quickly,” said Cranmer. “If it wasn’t for them it would have been a lot worse.”
Cranmer explained that conservators had come up from Victoria to help restore the pieces impacted by the fire but that the damage done was extensive. The whole collection needs to be removed from the gallery and the gallery itself gutted to deal with the smoke damage caused by the blaze.
“We’d sure appreciate any help (identifying the culprits),” said Cranmer. “It’s troubling to think that this could happen again.”
Anyone with information on the fire is encouraged to contact the Alert Bay RCMP at 250-974-5544.