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‘Devastating loss for everyone’: Fire destroys historic Toronto Islands clubhouse and café

A fire that destroyed a beloved Toronto Islands landmark Sunday morning has left residents, politicians, and visitors reeling.

The fire broke out at the Ward’s Island Association Clubhouse at 20 Withrow St., south of the Ward’s Island Ferry Docks, and quickly engulfed the building, which is also home to the popular Island Café.

Firefighters rushed to the scene around 2:20 a.m. and were met with a fully involved fire, Toronto Fire Chief Chief Matthew Pegg told CP24.

He said that upon arrival crews moved into what is known as “defensive attack operations,” focusing their efforts on ensuring that it didn’t spread to any adjoining structures.

“They did a marvellous job of that,” Pegg told CP24’s Steve Ryan.

Calling the fire a “devastating loss for everyone,” he noted that additional support crews from the mainland were dispatched to assist in fighting the fire, which is now out.

No injuries have been reported.

Pegg said that Toronto fire will be bringing in heavy equipment to remove some debris at one corner of the building in an effort to “suppress the rest of the fire.”

“Crews will be there all night. That equipment is scheduled to arrive tomorrow and we’ll continue with the fire investigation operation at that time,” he said.

Firefighters remain on hand at this time monitoring for any hot spots.

Photos from the scene show a totally collapsed structure, with burnt debris and shards of wood scattered throughout the area.

ISLAND RESIDENTS ARE DEVASTATED

Island residents are heartbroken by the loss of their beloved meeting place.

“(It) was community hall and a family-run business. The building is really the heart of this community so it’s devastating,” Alison Gzowski, president of the Ward’s Island Association, told CTV News Toronto.

“Each of us have long-term memories and attachments to that building … (It) was built in 1937 by volunteers. Each of my parents was a president of (the association).”

Gzowski said that the fire will mean that the Island Café, a summertime business enjoyed by both locals and visitors, will be out of commission this year.

The main part of the building that housed a community hall that was used for a variety of local gatherings and meetings as well as external bookings is also gone, she added.

“We’re still here. We’ll still find a way, but it’s very, very sad,” said Gzowski.

Wards Island Association Clubhouse fire

Life-long Island resident Don Sampson said that the clubhouse was a beautiful building made out wood, which he said didn’t stand a chance to the fire.

“We have a really strong community,” he said.

“We’ll figure out a way to rebuild all this and put it back together,” he told CTV News Toronto’s Beth Macdonell.

Some, however, are questioning the fire.

Claudette Abrams lives nearby and took several photos of the blaze. She said she was one of the first people on the scene.

Abrams told CTV News that while she commends the work f the firefighters, she has concerns with old Island infrastructure and it appeared that they had difficulty responding quickly to put out the fire. 

Ward's Island Association Clubhouse fire

Speaking with CP24’s Steve Ryan, Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow said that the building that was lost in the fire was an important gathering place for Island residents as well as visitors, a spot where people came together for weddings, memorials, and funerals. It also served as a first-stop, she said, for those visiting the Islands, where people grabbed a coffee or an ice cream and went on their way.

“It’s very sad that it’s gone, however the Islanders are very resilient,” Chow said, pointing to another clubhouse on the Islands that previously burned down and was quickly rebuilt.

“I suspect (Ward’s Island Clubhouse) will rise from the ashes and get rebuilt.”

Chow toured the scene of the fire with Pegg on Sunday afternoon. She said tahat she hopes that the Island cafe can find a way to open this summer regardless.

“There’s nothing left, actually the patio is still there,” said Chow, who said that she visited the café just a few months ago.

“(The residents) are all very sad, they’re in shock.”

In a post on X, local Coun. Ausma Malik said that she’s “very relieved” that no one was injured in the fire.

The Spadina-Fort York rep said she’s “deeply saddened by the loss of this cherished community space” and is in communication with Toronto Fire Services and community members as next steps are being determined for this site.

A City of Toronto spokesperson said that they are also “saddened to hear of the fire and thankful no one was injured.”

The spokesperson noted that Ward’s island Clubhouse along with Island Café are managed by the Toronto lslands Residential Community Trust Corporation (TIRCTC), which was established in 1993 under the Toronto Island Residential Community Stewardship Act. The city also said that the land and building ownership is vested in the Province under the Act and leased to the Trust to manage until 2092.

Alison Rogers, TIRCTC’s chair, said the loss of the clubhouse is “devastating.”

“It was much more than a historic island landmark and restaurant. It was the heart and hub of the Island community but its loss has not stopped the heart from beating,” she said.

“The community is resilient and the sight will host our meetings, dances, celebrations, and memorials again soon enough.”

The cause, origin and circumstances of the fire are now being investigated.

With files from CTV News Toronto’s Beth Macdonell and Brooklyn Connolly.

Ward Island Association Clubhouse fire