‘No one was a hero and no one got hurt’
An emergency escape plan is being credited for saving the lives of more than 35 employees after the Hitch House on Highway 11 became engulfed in flames, Tuesday afternoon.
Staff at the recreational-vehicle mega-store located on Gasoline Alley, north of Barrie, had minutes to evacuate the showroom after fire broke out in a motor home around 2:30 p.m.
“The emergency safety procedure worked very well,” store manager Paul Lewis told the Examiner. “No one was a hero and no one got hurt.”
The fire quickly spread through from the showroom to service areas as staff exited the building to wait for Oro-Medonte firefighters to arrive.
“They got everybody out. They had a fire safety plan and we used that to determine what was in the building,” Oro-Medonte Fire Chief Hugh Murray said at the scene. “The main showroom is totally gone and we’ll be here all night just trying to put it out.”
A large plume of black smoke rose from the blaze as more than 50 firefighters arrived at the 35,000-square-foot facility from fire departments in Barrie as well as Springwater, Tay and Severn townships under local mutual-aid agreements.
It didn’t take long for the fire to spread and destroy the showroom, Murray said.
“It was sheer volume and the heavy fire load. Those motor homes have a lot of plastic and there were propane cylinders exploding in the building and gas shooting out of them, so it was a challenge,” he said.
“We tapped all our stations,” Murray added. “This was a big fire. The last one (of this magnitude) was probably Barrie’s Five Points (fire in December 2007).”
Eight recreational vehicles in the showroom were destroyed.
The highway’s southbound lanes were closed between Line 3 South and Highway 93.
Smoke could be seen for several kilometres around the fire scene.
“I work at a body shop on Dunlop Street in Barrie and you could see the smoke for miles and miles,” said Springwater Township resident Darrell Eacott. “I phoned a buddy of mine in Gravenhurst and he could see it.”
The Hitch House, which has been around for more than 30 years, sells recreational vehicles, such as motor homes and campers, and is a well-known sight along Highway 11.
The business dates back to 1969, when David McKee resigned from the Canadian Forces and rented a Fina gas station on Highway 11.
McKee expanded his property and facilities between 1973 and 1980, purchasing almost nine acres in 1973 adjacent to the Fina station and built his first facility.
Two more acres were bought in 1978, and by 1980 the building was enclosed and insulated as a year-round facility for mechanical work and metal fabrication.
When fire crews entered the showroom, Tuesday afternoon, several motor homes had to be removed from the building before firefighters could focus a constant flow of water on the heart of the blaze.
“The motor home quickly became engulfed in flames and made it very difficult to fight the fire,” Murray said. “We’re cycling guys through, so we’re sending guys off to rest up (before bringing them back in).”
Emergency crews had to truck water in from a stream on Line 1 North because the area isn’t fitted with water hydrant utilities, Murray said.
“We’re shuttling water. We have about eight tankers running back and forth to the scene,” he said. “Once we got the water supply established, they were constantly running.”
Eacott was on scene watching and remembers the iconic business after growing up in Oro-Medonte.
The 42-year-old said the scenery and the history of the area will never be the same.
“The Hitch House has been around forever,” he said. “In Gasoline Alley, and I’ve travelled this road everyday of my life, it’s the only existing building that’s still here. Everything else is new development or has been boarded up.”
Tammy Phillips stood outside the building with Eacott as firefighters attempted to flood the facility with water. She said her heart goes out to the families and staff who’ve been affected.
“It’s sad to see because this is like a landmark. It’s definitely sad to see and it’s a shame,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
The cause of the fire is not considered suspicious, according to provincial police, but the Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM) has been called in to investigate.
The OFM is expected to start its investigation once it’s safe to enter the building.
The Hitch House added a 7,500-sq.-ft. showroom in 1997.
By 2004, there was a state-of-the-art body shop and two body-shop preparation bays were added to the facility.
There were also two 50-foot mechanical bays, a new service reception desk and customer lounge.