The city says the inferno in St. Boniface on Monday was one of the largest fires that crews have battled in Winnipeg.

The massive fire forced about 100 residents from their homes and caused $15 million in damage, said fire officials.

It took more than 60 firefighters and seven hours, but fire officials said a massive blaze that sent fireballs into the sky and blanketed Winnipeg with smoke was finally under control early Tuesday morning. All residents were allowed back home around 12:30 a.m.

The fire broke out around 5:30 p.m. Monday on Nicolas Avenue at Speedway International, a company that manufactures fuel for race cars. Inside the business was 75,000 litres of highly flammable biofuel.

Officials said around midnight Monday, the fire was still burning but was under control. Firefighters remained on scene Tuesday morning watching for spot fires.

The risk of explosion remained high for hours after the fire broke out, preventing fire crews from getting close to the blaze. 

“We did have a tanker explode here earlier that sent flames about half a mile in the air, which was pretty significant and caused us to rethink our strategy obviously,” said Reid Douglas, Winnipeg’s fire chief.

Fire crews tried to battle the blaze from above with water being pumped into the flames from a large crane.

Evacuations put into place

Fire officials evacuated the area and closed off streets in a one kilometer area around the hot zone. Officials said they were concerned two large tankers of methanol alcohol bio-diesel could blow up.

Dozens of homes and businesses were evacuated from Archibald, Kavanagh Street and Giroux Street shortly before 8 p.m. Monday. Drivers and pedestrians were told to avoid the area and multiple roadblocks were erected around the blaze.

"It was a good panic attack, that's for sure," said Stephanie Smith, a resident temporarily forced out of her home.

Emanuel Aruda works next door to where the fire broke out and said it happened almost instantly. “When I came out of the shop there was nothing. Within 20 seconds it was engulfed just the way it is (now),” said Aruda.

Keith Norek said he just managed to grab the essentials before he fled the area with his three-year-old son. “I just grabbed some clothes for everyone: a couple kids’ supplies, diapers.”

Norek barely made it out of the area in time.

“We were probably about half way down the block on Kavanagh when one of the explosions went,” said Norek. “We could feel it was a really hot fire. It was intense (heat) like sitting next to a big bonfire.”

Tim Burnell was working at a business in the area when firefighters came to the door and told him and his coworkers to leave. Burnell said it wasn’t only the heat that worried him as he fled, but the intense smoke.

“We could feel the heat from that fireball from half a mile away,” said Burnell. “Then we started smelling the smoke.”

By 10 p.m. evacuations had been extended all the back to the Seine River, and crews began to douse the flames with foam.

“We’re just making an assessment now to see if we’re going to start going in and putting massive streams on it,” Douglas said. 

Crews get fire under control

Just before midnight, fire officials said the blaze was finally under control, largely due to the help of a military foam truck on scene.

Evacuees spent part of the night huddled in Winnipeg Transit buses, while others waited at a local curling rink. City officials advised anyone who was forced from their home or business to call 311 for information. The city said the evacuation order was lifted around 12:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Investigations launched

Fire officials are now working to determine what triggered the blaze.

Officials said there were not environmental concerns resulting from the fire, adding that biofuel is meant to burn clean.

The City of Winnipeg said an investigation will be launched to make sure chemicals were stored properly at the site.

Some residents living nearby said they didn't previously know a fuel plant was so close. Some also said they believed a fuel business shouldn't be near homes.

"I think things like that should be outside the city or somewhere where there is no houses because it's a little scary," said Stephanie Smith.

The neighbourhood is zoned for residential use, while just across Archibald where the explosion happened the area is zoned for industrial.

"There is probably a good chance the industrial area was here before the homes were here," said Randy Hull emergency preparedness coordinator with the City of Winnipeg.

The deputy fire chief said the location of the fuel business is no different than your local gas bar.

"There (are) an awful lot of gas stations in every neighbourhood that have propane tanks that are just as bad. They can cause the same trouble," said Bill Clark, deputy fire chief.