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Dozens flee flames and smoke at hockey arena complex in Kindersley, Saskatchewan


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KINDERSLEY, Sask. - Dozens of firefighters, heavy equipment operators and emergency officials banded together Friday in an urgent effort to save a hockey and curling complex that serves as the "heartbeat" of a small Saskatchewan community.
Municipal officials in Kindersley declared a local emergency in the morning, shortly after they were notified that a massive fire had ripped through a portion of the West Central Events Centre, which was hosting a provincial women's curling championship.
A fire alarm went off, forcing dozens of curlers and officials attending the provincial Scotties Tournament of Hearts into the cold. Many fled as the curling rink, which was adjacent to the burning arena, filled with smoke.
At one point, flames could be seen shooting more than 10 metres into the air, as the older of two hockey arenas at the downtown complex was engulfed in flames.
The wooden arena burned to the ground, said RCMP Staff Sgt. Wally Lynds.
Firefighters from Kindersley and several surrounding communities redoubled their efforts to save the newer portion of the building housing a second arena and the curling facility. They poured water on it and hit it with flame retardant foam and local contractors used backhoes to pry apart the smoldering remains of the charred building to prevent flames from spreading.
By early afternoon, their efforts had paid off. The curling rink and newer hockey facility had been saved and firefighters had the fire under control.
"It burned up to the common wall between the old arena and the new one. They were able to stop it at that point and save the new facility. But it did suffer extensive smoke and heat damage," said Lynds.
The blaze forced a halt to the provincial curling playdowns. Officials in nearby Eston, Sask., which had also sent its firefighters to help battle the flames, stepped up to offer its own curling facilities so that the tournament could continue.
When the newer part of the hockey and curling complex was built in 1992, it was constructed out of cement and Lynds said that probably prevented the flames from spreading.
"That also played a big part in slowing the fire down so they could get it under control," he said.
The cause of the blaze was still under investigation, though Lynds said it's believed to be accidental. No damage estimate was immediately available.
Town administrators in the community about 120 kilometres west of Saskatoon declared a local emergency Friday morning and set up a command centre at town hall just a couple of blocks from the burning building. They were ready to respond to what they worried could turn into a disaster.
Students from two nearby schools were told to leave, along with residents and businesses within a one-block radius of the complex.
Sherry Magnuson, the town's chief administrator, urged residents who were forced to leave to gather at an Elks community hall on the west side of town and register with local officials. It was a precautionary move as firefighters grew concerned about what the blaze might do.
"We're concerned about if there might be a potential explosion with some of the chemicals that are at the arena, so we need to be cautious with that," Magnuson said.
Lynds said fire officials wanted to make sure the flames were extinguished before allowing people to go back to their homes and businesses.
Muncipal officials lifted the evacuation around 4 p.m. local time.
The fire at the older arena was so large and hot that it broke the windows and damaged the siding of homes across the street.
"Vehicles a block away had burning embers landing on them, causing paint damage. We had a pickup with empty cardboard boxes in the back at the high school (that) caught on fire," he said. That blaze had to be extinguished with fire extinguishers, Lynds said.
RCMP Sgt. Carole Raymond said only one person was taken to hospital with minor injuries.
Jill Shumay, who was curling with the Patty Hersikorn rink from Saskatoon, said there was no sense of panic when the fire alarm went off, even though they could smell smoke.
"There's a big mess and huge smoke damage. It was very smoky when we were evacuating already."
Regina curler Michelle Englot, who wasn't scheduled to be on the ice at the time, said she found out about the blaze from other players. It wasn't the first time that curlers attending the provincial championships had heard fire alarms go off in the facility.
"There were two alarms that went off during (Thursday's) games," she said.
They turned out to be false alarms.
The two arenas are at the centre of life in the community. The newer one is home to the Kindersley Klippers of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
The heavy damage will be very difficult for residents to take, Magnuson said.
"(They are) the heartbeat of the community, so this is really shocking and devastating for us," she said. It's going to have quite an impact."
Englot and Cathy Inglis's team lost their equipment in the blaze and were forced to travel back to Saskatoon to get new shoes and brooms.
"Shoes are a little more difficult to replace and break in," Eglot said.
Shumay was trying to put her game face on after the blaze and the tournament's sudden switch to a different rink.
"We just have to go in with open minds and realize it's not going to be what we were curling on before," she said. "The ice makers are there and they are working on the ice and it's the same for everybody."

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