ALERT BAY—Quick action by volunteer firefighters may well have saved a historic and world-renowned Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch collection after a fire broke out early Tuesday morning in the U’mista Cultural Centre.
The fire, which appears to have started in or near a dehumidifier, broke out about 2 a.m., ‘Namgis Chief Bill Cranmer said. It triggered a built-in sprinkler system which, with the help of firefighters, helped limit the damage to an eight-foot section of the facility.
“There’s a bit of smoke damage and water damage near the front of the building,” said Cranmer. “None of the masks were burned. There’s some smoke and water damage to some of them, but that can be fixed up with the help of conservators, and we’ve got access to them from major museums.”
Cranmer said a dozen or more of the centre’s historic potlatch masks were affected. The fire also burned a hole through the wall at the front of the building, facing the beach.
The centre houses a substantial collection of potlatch masks and other artifacts, some more than a century old, that were confiscated by the government from a Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch in River’s Inlet in 1921. After a 65-year ban on the potlatch was lifted in 1951, the Kwakwaka’wakw people fought for decades for the return of the masks and regalia from various museums and collectors around the world.
Staff and volunteers spent Tuesday at the U’mista Centre cleaning and drying the facility, and sent out a call to the Cormorant Island community for any large fans or dehumidifiers that might be donated to the cause.
The U’mista Centre’s front entrance was also damaged when firefighters were forced to break into the building to battle the fire. Cranmer said the area affected by the fire would probably remain closed to the public while inspectors investigate the blaze and repairs take place, but that the rest of the centre is expected to remain open after the main entrance is repaired.
The U’mista Cultural Centre also includes a gift shop, meeting room and other displays.