MILLTOWN, N.L. — A small-town Newfoundland deputy mayor surveyed the smouldering remnants of his childhood school Tuesday, dismayed at having to rebuild his community after a series of fires that also hit the local town hall and police station.
"It's rubble. Basically, the school complex is reduced to basic ashes," Clarence Kelly said Tuesday of the elementary school portion of the Bay d'Espoir Academy the 60-year-old once attended as a child.
A man was in police custody and was expected to appear in Grand Falls court on Tuesday afternoon to face charges in blazes that have devastated the small south shore community of Milltown-Head of Bay d'Espoir.
The fire also destroyed the gymnasium where most community events are held, badly damaged the interior of the town hall, and damaged the local RCMP detachment.
"I got up and looked out and everything was all ablaze," said Melita Kearley, who lives on a hilltop overlooking the bay.
Kelly said it's hard to fathom why anyone would deliberately try to harm his town, just months after the October flooding that tore up roads and flooded some homes after a deluge of 200 millimetres of rain.
"We just got through the hurricane Matthew thing. We just had time to put the town back together from that, and now we have to deal with this as well," he said, his voice raw with emotion.
"It has to be (arson). The town hall is separated from the school by a quarter of a kilometre and the RCMP is four kilometres from either of those. So, it's not a coincidence," he said.
"It's almost mind boggling."
RCMP Cpl. Trevor O'Keefe said calls about the fire started coming in at about 4:40 a.m. local time Tuesday that the town hall for Milltown-Head of Bay d'Espoir was on fire.
A short time later, callers said the local school and RCMP station were also on fire.
Kearley said she was awakened at about 5:30 a.m. by her daughter, who called to tell her to get up and look out at the school burning down the hill.
She said she saw flames and thick smoke blanketing the area below.
"Oh my God, the smoke was just going in over the hill and the school looked like it was completely burning to the ground," she said, adding that it appears part of the school was saved.
She said the school serves several surrounding communities and has about 260 students from kindergarten to Grade 12. Both her eight-year-old daughter and son, who is supposed to graduate from Grade 12 this year, attend the school.
"It's a big loss," said Kearley, who is married to the mayor, who was not available. "It's your infrastructure — your school and your town office and your police station."
Bob Woodman, the volunteer fire chief for the town, said in an interview it was the largest fire response in his time living in the community, situated at the head of the winding Bay d'Espoir inlet that penetrates deep into the mainland.
He said the fire was out by midday at the town hall and the RCMP building, and five volunteer fire departments with about 40 people had succeeded in keeping the fire from spreading into the high school.
"We have no place. We're homeless."
Woodman said the biggest priority will be restoring classrooms to hundreds of students from the area.
"This is the building that will have the biggest impact on the most people. It services people from a number of communities. It's going to be a big adjustment," he said.
Kelly said he and the council are going to start drawing up their next list of needs for disaster assistance. They met earlier in a retirement home across from their gutted town hall.
"We'll meet this evening in the same place. We have no place. We're homeless," he said wearily.