ST. ALBERT — Residents of this village are picking up the pieces after a fire on Sunday morning, Feb. 3, that ravaged the iconic 110-year-old St. Albert Cheese Co-operative plant.
Overcast skies kept the smoke from being visible too far away, but the billowing black plume could be seen upon closer approach to St. Albert — defined for generations by the cheese and curd brand bearing the village’s name.
A water hose snaked its way down St. Albert’s Rue Principale from the pump station on the banks of the South Nation River, and by noon the fire had engulfed the plant, with a bitter wind blowing smoke to the west.
A small staff of five or six called 9-1-1 that morning, reporting the smell of smoke and then seeing it come from an attic area. First responders included Nation municipality fire departments in St. Albert and Limoges, plus Casselman.
Police cordoned off the village, restricting access to the fire. There were reports of some residents choosing to evacuate from their homes and taking refuge in a local community centre.
The Nation Municipality’s ‘west sector’ Fire Chief West Aurèle Constantineau told the media on scene that other area departments such as Embrun, St. Isidore, Clarence-Rockland, Hawkesbury, Crysler and Finch were assisting with the effort.
Constantineau also confirmed that there were no injuries, and stated, "There is no indication at this time of what started the blaze, and there has been no explosion. We were told that there were no chemi
cals in the building to cause an explosion, but houses around the factory have been evacuated."
Other emergency response departments on-site included the Russell County Ontario Provincial Police, UCPR ambulances and the Clarence-Rockland Air Mobile Unit.
Also at the scene, Nation Mayor Francois St. Amour told The AgriNews that the devastation meant 120 jobs lost to the community. "The impact of this loss to this close knit community will be felt for a long time," he said.
Prescott Russell Warden René Berthiaume said in a press release: "This is a tragedy for the residents of St. Albert, for The Nation Municipality, and for the entire region. Our thoughts are with the 120 employees and their families as well as the proud artisans of this institution."
But the employees aren’t the only ones who will feel the impact.
One local farmer and his wife, who dropped by the scene when they heard the news of the fire, voiced concern about a destination for their milk, noting their output has gone into the cooperative’s plant for 15 years.
The Dairy Farmers of Ontario, which handles the province’s milk supply, was not available for immediate comment on where milk and cheese production might be shifted with St. Albert going off line.
Local residents watched the smoke and flames with dismay. Many mentioned that generations of their families had worked at the cooperative, which opened in 1894. It was a very sad day for St. Albert, they often said, but accompanied with a resolve to pull together and rebuild the historic operation.
By late Sunday afternoon, the news had circulated through area communities, emptying many local store shelves of the tasty curd and cheese varieties.
Co-operative President Denis Latour and General Manager Rejean Ouimet were unavailable for comment at time of publication.
The impact of the event was communicated far and wide by social media.
"It’s a sad day. I just lost my job this mornin’ because of this fire," wrote Marie-pier Marier in a post on the Chesterville Record’s Facebook page, sister publication to the AgriNews.
"I’m crying !!!!!!!" wrote another poster, De Martini.
"Yes, this is a very sad day for an icon of eastern Ontario," posted Darcy Neal Donnelly.
Similar sentiments were expressed from even further afield.
Ruth Wells of Mineville, Nova Scotia, commented online: "So sorry to read this - their cheese curd was awesome."
And Laura Covell of Kingston, similarly posted: "Can’t believe St.Albert cheese factory has burnt down. Thankfully no one has been hurt. THE most amazing cheese curds!"
Patrick Kearns also reflected on the St. Albert Cheese Facebook page: "A piece of my childhood memory gone. I remember on Sunday afternoons my Dad taking us to St. Albert for our weekly stash of curd and other cheese. To this day I could live on curd alone."
As of Monday, a smouldering pile of metal and loading docks were all that was left of the factory’s front half as firefighters continued to monitor the fire.
St. Albert firefighter Ray Lavergne told The AgriNews: "When I arrived at 10: 45 a.m. There was smoke everywhere, and nothing we could do to save it. The building collapsed around 1 p.m and flames were being put down, but were also moving from one area to another. It is terrible. It’s crazy that this has happened."
The successful manufacturer has been a long-time supporter of the region, from hosting the annual August Curd Festival — started at their 100th anniversary in 1994 — to making continued donations to South Nation Conservation’s Clean Water Program.
Funding from the co-op has helped implement 43 Clean Water Program projects in the region since 2004, including 12 in and around Nation Municipality in 2010.