A fire that broke out in the basement of Sarnia’s main library branch has indefinitely closed the Christina Street building, leading to staff layoffs and cancelling numerous public events and programs.
It’s also meant cleaning the library’s 100,000 books, DVDs and magazines, as well as computers, furniture and carpets due to minor smoke damage.
Though that work is largely complete it could be several more weeks before the ductwork is cleaned and the library ready to re-open, says Vince Wijsman, city property manager.
The Electrical Safety Authority has ordered the city to replace the main electrical panel and find and stop the source of water seeping into the library’s electrical room through the foundation.
Public Works was to begin excavating on the east side of the building this week.
Meanwhile, all late fees have been waived for book borrowers.
“The important thing is that no one was injured and the city and county have been working together to get the library open again as quickly as possible,” said Wijsman.
Sarnia owns the building and Lambton County owns the books, runs the programs and pays the staff.
“It could have been a lot worse,” said Wijsman of the July 13 fire, which began shortly after a contractor installed a new chiller, motor and compressor in the basement.
The contractor was still in the library after completing the mechanical work when he heard a sound in the basement, said Wijsman. The library’s transformer had caught fire.
“The contractor ran down and tried (unsuccessfully) to put the fire out with an extinguisher,” Wijsman said. “It was quick thinking on his part. He shut down the power and the HVAC system immediately.”
Firefighters arrived shortly after and extinguished the small fire. Had the HVAC system remained on, more smoke would have spread throughout the building and the damage been much worse, he said.
About 20 people were needed to wipe down nearly every single book in the building, as well as the walls and furniture. They started cleaning the library auditorium, seats and carpets last week.
Wijsman said the city has already replaced the transformer and repaired some fairly minor electrical damage. He did not have a figure on the cost but said insurance will cover it.
But there’s no insurance for the library workers’ wages.
Seventeen full-time and 17 part-time employees and members of Unifor Local 65 have been laid off.
“There are a lot of members who are upset,” said Glenn Sonier, national union rep for the downtown library workers.
Sonier said he was surprised the county didn’t have insurance to cover employee wages or that the library workers weren’t reassigned to other jobs.
“When we have shutdowns in Chemical Valley, most keep their workers busy doing something else,” he said. “We requested other work and the county said it was unfeasible at this time.”
The county is within its rights to lay off workers in these circumstances, Sonier added.
“It’s a matter of choice and it does give our members an opportunity to apply for EI (employment insurance).”
Andrew Meyer, the county’s corporate cultural officer who oversees library operations, also credited the quick response of the contractor at the fire scene.
“We’re very grateful the damage isn’t more severe,” he said.
Meyer said temporarily laying off staff is what the union recommended.
“It’s unfortunate there is no wage insurance,” he said. “But we don’t typically do that.”
Employees couldn’t be moved to other library branches – even though they are busier with the main branch closed – because employees at every other branch belong to another union.
The county is focused on getting the building cleaned up as soon as possible, Meyer said. “We really appreciate the public’s patience as we work to get the library open.”
He estimated the library could re-open by mid-August.
July 13 – Basement fire closes library.
July 20 – Power restored.
July 25 – Bookmobile service, which operates from Sarnia library, is suspended.
July 28 – Transformer replaced.
Aug. 4 – Cleaning of books and furniture to be finished. Cleaning of ductwork started.
Mid-August – Estimated time of library re-opening.