Food processing

5 people injured in an explosion, a fire at the Sherbrooke agri-food hub

Five people were injured Wednesday morning in an explosion and major fire at an industrial food preparation and processing hub in Sherbrooke, Quebec.

Firefighters and paramedics intervened at the Center de valorisation de l’aliment de l’Estrie (CVA) after reports of an explosion around 8:30 a.m.

“They are dealing with burns, but we still don’t know the extent of the injuries,” Stéphane Simoneau, director of the Sherbrooke fire department, told Radio-Canada.

It is unclear if any of the injuries are life threatening.

Dr. Marie-Maud Couture, head of the emergency department at the Center hospitalier universitaire de Sherbrooke (CHUS), said five patients were treated in the emergency room. Some, with more serious injuries, have been transferred to other specialized health centers.

The building, with almost the footprint of a CFL football field, includes several industrial kitchens, food processing warehouses, workshops, event spaces and other food-related businesses.

About 40 firefighters from six different fire stations are on site and Simoneau expects the teams to be there all day.

“There was a lot of combustible material inside,” he said, adding that the explosion appears to have damaged the building’s sprinkler system and prevented it from activating.

It is still too early to determine the origin of the explosion, but “it seems obvious” that hazardous materials were involved, Simoneau said.

“It was probably caused by propane or natural gas,” Simoneau said. “That’s what the investigation will show us.”

Heavy equipment is used to demolish the building so firefighters can get inside. Crews must move slowly because several parts of the structure are at risk of collapsing, and Simoneau says they must be careful to avoid another explosion.

“The challenge is to stay one step ahead of the fire and to deconstruct the building bit by bit to find what caused it,” he said.

Fire teams from six different stations intervened on Wednesday at the Food Valorization Center after an explosion and a major fire that injured at least three people. (André Vuillemin/Radio-Canada)

The neighbors heard “a big boom”

Dominic Diorio, who works nearby, said he and his colleagues believed there had been an accident in their yard.

“There was a big boom. Our offices shook,” he said. “Unfortunately, we saw that the CVA had caught fire.”

CVA co-owner Ashley Wallis is still amazed.

“I’m in shock,” he said. “The priority was to see if everyone was alive. It was a difficult morning.”

Wallis said the fact that everyone working today was able to escape the building is a “small miracle”.

Fourteen local businesses use the warehouses daily and several other businesses use the industrial kitchens to prepare food products. He says the fire is a major loss for businesses and means many people will be out of work.

Wallis hopes investigators can get to the bottom of what happened, and he said he was confused as to what could have caused the explosion.

“There was one propane unit and the rest was electric,” he said.

Route 112 is completely closed to Parc Avenue due to the emergency operation, and Bourque Boulevard, where the food laboratory is located, is closed to traffic in both directions.