Early-morning fire destroys several businesses in Vancouver

Cambie Street is closed to traffic between West 22nd and 29 avenues

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When Nelly Jakac got a 3 a.m. phone call Thursday from her alarm company, she assumed it was just another robbery at her Cambie Street pharmacy.

But she was soon jolted awake with the news that the Pharmasave outlet she ran for the last 15 years was gutted by an early morning blaze. The 2 a.m. fire also destroyed three other businesses — the Copa Cafe, the QE Park Medical Clinic and Yi Fang Taiwan Fruit Tea — and an empty storefront that was until COVID-19 hit occupied by Helping Hand Cleaners.

“To see this, I was speechless,” said Jakac, standing in front of the Tim Hortons at the SkyTrain station across the street from the strip between King Edward and 24th Avenue as Vancouver Fire and Rescue first-responders continued to pour water through the roof of the one-storey, wood frame buildings Thursday morning. The air was thick with the smell of smoke.

The windows of the storefront of Jakac’s building and the others were smashed, and the red Pharmacare awning was on the sidewalk. There were a number of fire trucks in the block, which diverted morning rush-hour traffic.

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“The damage was catastrophic,” said spokesman Capt. Jonathan Gormick of Vancouver Fire and Rescue. “I don’t think any of the (five) buildings can be salvaged.”

An investigation continues into the cause of the fire, he said.

Jakac’s pharmacy “was my life, it was my second home,” said Jakac. She said her patients would share their news such as a pregnancy and births with her. “They’re patients but they’re like family.”

“This is a very distinct little location” that isn’t part of Cambie Village a few blocks north and it caters mostly to those in the neighbourhood, she said.

“I feel like this is a small village and I’m the general store,” she said.

One of those patients, Andrew Kolmel, waves and calls out to Jakac as he leaves, “We’ll see you soon. Love you!”

“She’s like an old-school pharmacist,” said Kolmel, who said he lives closer to the Shoppers Drug Mart farther north but chose to get his prescriptions filled at the smaller Pharmasave. “Nelly is really the heart of the neighbourhood. She’s sort of like a second mom.”

Kolmel lost his family doctor too and is worried about how he will find a new one. He was scheduled to get a flu shot at the pharmacy on Thursday.

“It’s Nelly I feel for,” said Roy Toigo, who owns the building south of the fire, which his family leases out to a carpet store and Scotiabank, which weren’t burned but may have suffered smoke damage. “She’s very welcoming.”

Toigo also said he ate regularly at Copa Cafe. But he didn’t worry about the loss of the buildings changing the neighbourhood because “it’s a matter of time” before the block faced modernization and denser development.

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Jakac said she hopes to reopen in the area: “I will rise from the ashes, absolutely.”

A GoFundMe campaign has also been launched to support the businesses and staff impacted by the fire. The crowdfunding campaign, spearheaded by Cambie Village Business Association executive director Rania Hatz, aims to raise $25,000.

“Several businesses were destroyed beyond salvation. Others suffered extended smoke and water damage. In addition to the expenses that the owners will face before insurance assistance is available, staff of these businesses will also need help,” Hatz wrote.

“Cambie Village would like to help with these merchants and their staff with immediate assistance as needed. In these tough times, your help would be very much appreciated. Please consider helping if you are able to do so.”

Firefighters battled a blaze overnight and into the morning on Oct. 15, 2020 after fire hit a row of businesses in the 4000-block of Cambie Street in Vancouver. Credit: Mike Bell/PNG [PNG Merlin Archive]
Firefighters battled a blaze overnight and into the morning on Thursday after fire hit a row of businesses in the 4000-block of Cambie Street in Vancouver. Photo by Mike Bell /PNG

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