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Fire investigators search for cause of blaze that destroyed clubhouse on Ward's Island

Heavy machinery was brought in Monday to assist firefighters as they combed through the rubble of the former Ward's Island Association Clubhouse.  (Paul Smith/CBC - image credit)
Heavy machinery was brought in Monday to assist firefighters as they combed through the rubble of the former Ward's Island Association Clubhouse. (Paul Smith/CBC - image credit)

Fire investigators are still trying to determine the cause of a blaze that destroyed a clubhouse and café on the Toronto Islands over the weekend.

A fire broke out at the Ward's Island Association Clubhouse around 2 a.m. on Sunday and gutted the building that also housed the Island Cafe .

Heavy machinery was brought in Monday to assist firefighters as they combed through the rubble. Toronto Fire Deputy Chief Larry Cocco said a team of investigators was on scene looking into the origin and cause of the fire.

"Due to the extent of damage and to allow the team to conduct the investigation safely, as you see behind me, there's heavy equipment being utilized to help the investigators go through the scene quadrant by quadrant," Cocco said on Monday near the scene.

"The investigators are sifting through debris to look for any artifacts or anything that assist them in ascertaining both origin and cause."

Investigators will also interview witnesses and review video taken by residents in the surrounding area. He said fire crews will likely wrap up their on-scene investigation sometime on Tuesday.

Ward's Island is one of several islands that make up Toronto Island Park and is a residential part of the islands.

Ward's Island fire 2
Ward's Island fire 2

Local residents came by the site on Monday to see the damage for themselves, with many in disbelief. (Paul Smith/CBC)

Local residents came by the site on Monday to see the damage for themselves, with many in disbelief.

Lori Dell, an island resident, said she was shocked. She said the clubhouse was a meeting place for the community, and that dances and weddings were held there.

"I'm sure for a lot of the older Islanders, that have a lot of history, sometimes generations back, or their business, it's just devastating. They're going to be grieving for a while, I think," Dell said.

The clubhouse was originally constructed in the 1930s. Pictures and paintings on its walls that had been gathered throughout the decades were destroyed in the blaze.

'We can rebuild,' café owner says

But Islanders told reporters that the spirt of the building will live in a different form.

Peter Freeman, co-owner of the Island Cafe, said there has been a groundswell of support since the fire. The café was a longtime tenant of the clubhouse.

"We can rebuild," he said.

"I just appreciate the love and support. In an awful situation, there's all this up swelling, and that's kind of heartening in these times."

Two firefighters stand near the debris that is left after the fire early Sunday.
Two firefighters stand near the debris that is left after the fire early Sunday.

Two firefighters stand near the debris that is left after the fire early Sunday. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Freeman said it's going to take some time to rebuild the clubhouse, but the owners of the café are already in talks with the city about a temporary solution this summer.

In fact, Freeman says Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow is already floating some ideas to the community. Chow went to the site on Sunday.

"Olivia immediately said, well, let's just put some containers on the site, and you know, there's the café. It's going to take some real time to think about what to do with this site, in terms of rebuilding, but the café, we can have some containers and we can have a tent. I'm feeling really hopeful," he said.

'It just leaves a big gaping hole'

Jay Bascom, a local resident who has been the bingo caller at the clubhouse for 56 years, said the building is central to the Ward's Island community. He said the clubhouse was built in 1937 by Islanders for $2,600. He is the secretary of the Ward's Island Association.

Jay Bascom
Jay Bascom

Jay Bascom, a local resident who has been the bingo caller at the clubhouse for 56 years, says: 'The community events have always been so important to us and they have been centred around that building.' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

"You see it coming off the ferry. It's always been there and now all of a sudden it isn't anymore," he said.

Bascom said so many events, including weddings, dances, funerals and community meetings, were held in the clubhouse. The walls were lined with historic photographs that contained the memories of Islanders, he said.

"The community events have always been so important to us and they have been centred around that building," Bascom said.

"It had a spirit all its own. When you went in there, you could feel history," he added. "It just seemed that when you walked in the door, it was like coming home."

Bascom said it will take a long time for residents to get over its loss.

"It just leaves a great big gaping hole in the middle of you."

Coun. Ausma Malik, who represents Spadina-Fort York, said it's a major loss but that the community is resilient.

"It is such an incredible loss of a cherished community space, a historic site that holds so much history about the community on the island," Malik said.