Whakatane CBD fire: Firefighter called to fight blaze at own business

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Whakatane CBD fire: Firefighter called to fight blaze at own business

By Whakatane Beacon

The owners of six Whakatane businesses are picking through the charred remains of their livelihoods this week after a fire ripped through the Bridger Building on The Strand.

A ram-raid is believed to be the cause of the fire that gutted the historic building in the early hours of Monday morning, devastating the businesses as they prepared for the busiest shopping month of the year.

St John Whakatane, EPIC Escape Rooms, newly relocated Jean & Pete, Emmeline Taylor Acupuncture, Massage by Deidre and Brows and Beauty by Teppy were destroyed by the fire that started just after midnight.

The damage is extensive and graphic. Light fixtures have melted, windows have blown out, walls are blackened and carpets charred. The floor of the second storey – a floor well-trodden by game enthusiasts visiting EPIC Escape – has collapsed and the sky can be seen through the roof.

This particular business owner found out about the blaze when he was a part of the fire brigade responding to the call out.

EPIC Escape Rooms owner and Ōhope volunteer fire brigade member Matt Lowe said he never would have thought he’d see his businesses address flash across his pager screen.

“I can’t really comprehend that at 9pm on Sunday night we’d lock up and everything was fine and now in the morning it’s literally all gone.”

He’d had just one hour of sleep when he was disturbed by the buzzing of his pager. But it wasn’t until he was in the truck on the way to the job that he realised where the fire was located.

“Once I got there, I was into firefighter mode. There was a fire there and you need to put it out.”

EPIC Escape was a business unique to Whakatane and Mr Lowe and partner Anne Hetherington’s passion project.

Whakatane CBD fire: Firefighter called to fight blaze at own business

St John charity shop has been destroyed. Photo / Troy Baker

The couple have spent thousands of hours developing their five escape rooms over the past three years and collecting bespoke e items to fill them with. Their most recent room was completed at the beginning of this month.

Insurance may cover the bare bones, but the passion, time and dedication stolen by the flames cannot be reimbursed.

With summer looming and the addition of another room, the couple’s workload had increased and so had their books. Three new employees hired for the holiday period are now also without jobs.

“The worst thing about it is it’s all for nothing,” Lowe said. “All it has done is destroy people’s lives.

“They didn’t get anything from driving a car through the doors of an op-shop, but they’ve ruined people’s lives.

“We’re still trying to wrap our heads around it.”

The fire may be extinguished but the damage looms over the business owners, as well as the owner of the heritage building that once was the biggest general store in the Bay of Plenty.

Building owner Martin Weber said he was totally devastated by the “senseless act”.

“This affects so many people in our community, especially those hardworking businesses that are so unique to our town.

“It is a huge loss to us, the business district and our community. Livelihoods have been destroyed.”

He said he was waiting on engineering reports to ascertain whether the building was salvageable.

“It would be tragic if the Bridgers Building, that was once the biggest general store in the Bay of Plenty, could not be saved, but it would take a very large financial effort to restore.

For Teppy Allan, owner of Brows and Beauty by Teppy, rebuilding is the highest priority.

Allan was fully booked until February and wants to honour her clients by getting back up and running as soon as possible.

“I can’t see myself doing anything else,” she said. “I love what I do and working for the women of the town, and I’m devastated to know I can’t do that right now.”

“I can’t say that I know what is going to happen in the future but there is definitely a lot of anxiety and stress around that,” she said.

Established just over a year ago, Allan said she had reached the point where her business was at the perfect spot.

“I guess we’ll start over again,” she said. “Nothing is salvageable which is sad.”

All businesses have suffered fire, water and smoke damage to varying degrees and Allan estimates a loss of $20,000 just in stock and equipment.

The Beacon spoke with St John store manager Robyn Wilson on Monday, who shared the same “we will rebuild” perspective.

Whakatane CBD fire: Firefighter called to fight blaze at own business

Emmeline Taylor and Deidre Carter have lost decades worth of equipment in the fire that destroyed their practices on Monday. Photo / Supplied

Jean & Pete owner Stacey Murray moved into the building two months ago, having previously been further down the street. She has lost everything, and the business above had fallen through its floor. She said working through the insurance process would be difficult as she would have to stocktake from memory.

“We’ll never be able to get everything back … this has stripped everyone of their incomes just before Christmas,” she said.

Emmeline Taylor, an acupuncturist, and Deidre Carter, a massage therapist, shared a premise in the building.

Both have lost decades worth of equipment, books, art, and rugs, all items that are irreplaceable and essential to their practices.

Taylor said the items were things she used every day and could never be replaced. Both women do not have business insurance and have lost everything.

Taylor said she found out about the fire while drinking her morning coffee and scrolling through Facebook.

Epic Whakatāne is doing what it can support the businesses affected.

“We’re talking with the businesses one on one at the moment; everybody is in shock and they’re just trying to process it,” spokesperson Cherie Stevenson said.

Despite their personal devastation, the business owners have expressed their gratitude to firefighters and the community, which has banded together in support.

Eastern Bay Chamber of Commerce general manager Jenna Gray said the Chamber would be providing support to businesses and Epic Whakatane Town Centre

“We will try through our networks to get them support, we have a whole lot of resources for our members, and we’ll be reaching out.

“It’s really devastating but we want to help in any way we can.”

Fundraising starts for fire victims

Thousands of dollars have already been raised in aid of those who lost their livelihoods following The Strand fire on Monday.

Givealittle pages, charity bank accounts and events, street appeals and an outpouring of verbal support are some of the ways the community has rallied behind the six businesses affected.

Cherie Stevenson of Epic Whakatāne said collection buckets would be out at the Late Night Christmas Market on Thursday, and a bank account previously set up for the Startup Weekend by business SafeStaff would be utilised to collate donations.

Stevenson encourages the community to shop local and continue to support businesses in the CBD.

Whakatane CBD fire: Firefighter called to fight blaze at own business

Several shops were devastated by fire in Whakatāne. Photo / Troy Baker

“This is financial really, which is really hard at this time of the year because people are stretched more than usual.”

“Shopping local is really important as well because this event will have a flow on effect to other businesses.”

Brows and Beauty by Teppy and EPIC Escape have set up Givealittle pages and Emmeline Taylor Acupuncture and Massage by Deidre are in the process of setting theirs up. If you would like to make a donation to businesses impacted by the fire, please refer to the information below.

Epic Escapes owner Matt Lowe said support from the community had been overwhelming.

“We hugely appreciate all the love from the community.”

For bank transfer:
Society Account (Startup Weekend Whakatane), account number: 12-3253-0117200-00

Search Brows and Beauty by Teppy: shop destroyed by arson
Search EPIC Escape Whakatāne: destroyed by arson

Emergency meeting to be held

An emergency meeting will be called between Epic Whakatane, the Eastern Bay Chamber of Commerce, Toi EDA, the council, and police to discuss urgent security measures needed for the CBD.

Epic Whakatane spokesperson Cherie Stevenson said a meeting would be held this week, but could not confirm when, to discuss progress on security measures that had been in the pipeline for some time.

“We’ve been trying for a while so it’s just about how we collectively get together and make it a priority.”

Stevenson said she had contacted the newly appointed security panel to fast track a response to the fire.

Chamber general manager Jenna Gray said they would be supporting Epic as they led the charge, and would provide any resources that might be needed.

“We will put all our resources behind them and for us it’s the whole Eastern Bay,” she said.

“Especially coming off Covid and what businesses have been through already and having this added to the stress.”

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