Firefighters raced to save the largest store in Iqaluit Thursday as civic officials worked to ensure that Nunavut’s capital city would not run out of food or water.

The fire at Northmart, one of only two grocery stores in the city, was first noticed around 1:40 a.m., acting fire chief Nelson Johnson told reporters at a press conference. A crew of workers on an overnight shift were inside the store at the time.

“As soon as the fire alarm went off, they all evacuated,” Johnson said.

Iqaluit’s firefighters had already been having an unusually busy night, dealing with three vehicle fires and one fire set outside a vacant house. They entered the Northmart and attempted to extinguish the flames, which had already spread from the loading dock area into an attic.

The intensity of the fire soon overwhelmed the firefighters, who retreated outside the building and switched to a defensive attack. Preserving the store’s main shopping area and the elder centre next door became their priority.

As daybreak arrived and Iqaluit residents awakened, pictures began popping up of thick, black smoke billowing from the store.

“Watching a nightmare unfold is surreal. It’s just getting worse,” Kaani Naulaq tweeted at 7:27 a.m.

Iqaluit resident Mike Hadfield described the store, which offered a wide variety of goods aside from food, as “the hub of the community.”

After he heard about the fire, he went to the Arctic Co-Operatives store – the city’s sole remaining grocery store – to stock up on milk, eggs and other items.

“Within 10 minutes of me leaving the store, I drove by again and you couldn’t find a parking spot within three blocks,” he told The Canadian Press.

“Their shelves will be empty by the end of the day.”

The RCMP has launched an investigation into the cause of the fire.

Food, water shortages not expected

The fire continued to burn as morning turned into afternoon, with crews from outside the city being called in to relieve the local firefighters. It had spread to a furniture store in another part of the Northmart building by this time.

The flames had not reached the main grocery store, Johnson said, but the supermarket would likely have smoke and water damage. It was also unclear how much food would survive intact, given power to the building had been cut and temperatures outside had been around -5 C all day.

Local officials estimate that 60 per cent of the city’s food comes from Northmart. Even if everything in the store turns out to be unsalvageable, they said, there would be no imminent risk to Iqaluit’s overall food supply. As there are no roads leading to the city, supplies are typically shipped via airplane or boat. Every fall, many shipping containers full of dry goods are sent to Iqaluit to last its residents through the winter.

Amy Elgersma, the city’s acting chief administrative officer, said other retailers were increasing their usual orders of fruits, vegetables, meats and other perishable foods, while many of the recently arrived shipping containers were being stored outside the Northmart warehouse.

“There is enough food. There will be enough food brought in on a consistent basis,” Elgersma said.

Also being monitored was the city’s water supply, as the lengthy firefighting effort was placing high demands on the limited water system. Deliveries from water trucks, which cover the many properties not hooked up to the municipal system, were halted because of firefighting needs.

“We don’t have any immediate concerns, but we are concerned about the levels of water in general. We’re monitoring that and asking residents to conserve,” Elgersma said.

The fire caused a nearby elementary school to cancel its classes for the day. The elder centre next door to the store was evacuated.

Could sky-high prices rise even further?

Because of the cost and difficulty of shipping goods to Iqaluit, grocery prices are significantly higher than they are in southern Canada.

The federal government attempts to keep healthy food affordable through the Nutrition North program, but many items still cost two to three times what they do in most of the country.

This week’s flyer for the Northmart store in Iqaluit advertised large cartons of orange juice on sale for $10.19 and canned vegetables at $3.19, as well as a $4.99 sale price for two rolls of paper towels.

Iqaluit resident Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster told CTV News Channel she feared the town’s convenience stores and one remaining supermarket would raise their prices with Northmart out of commission.

“There’s a fear that that will now impact the price,” she said.

Increased prices would make food insecurity a bigger issue not only in Iqaluit, but also for people in other communities on Baffin Island. Because prices are even higher outside the city, out-of-towners often stock up on non-perishables while in Iqaluit for medical appointments or other reasons.

In Rankin Inlet – the second-largest community in Nunavut – the local grocery store recently advertised produce specials including peppers at $8.99 per kilogram and grapes at $7.99 per kilogram.

A 2014 report found that half of Inuit children in Nunavut aged 11 to 15 sometimes go to bed hungry.

City councilor Kyle Sheppard acknowledged the unease over a potential increases in food prices, but said he trusted Iqaluit’s retailers to “do the right thing” and not try to gouge customers.

“I would hope that our retailers would be good corporate citizens and would continue to provide the services at current prices,” he said.

Arctic Co-operatives said Thursday that it had agreed to purchase a freighter-load of supplies on its way to Iqaluit that was originally destined for Northmart.

“We have committed to the full freighter of inventory that was already in transit,” Duane Wilson, the company’s vice-president of stakeholder relations, told The Canadian Press.

Additionally, Wilson said, the store had increased the amount of goods it had ordered in an air shipment expected to arrive on Friday.

With files from The Canadian Press