Kelowna: Two fires, one week and a call for better building standards

Kelowna Fire Chief calls for higher sprinkler standards in new construction and less barbecues on patios in wood-frame buildings

  • Jul. 17, 2013 7:00 p.m.
Damage was evident from the outside of the Legacy apartment building on Rutland Road North Wednesday morning. Sixty-nine residents have registered with Emergency Social Services.

Damage was evident from the outside of the Legacy apartment building on Rutland Road North Wednesday morning. Sixty-nine residents have registered with Emergency Social Services.

The Legacy Apartments on Rutland Road lived up to their name this week, leaving quite the legacy for 52 homes worth of people living in the trendy development when it burned Tuesday evening.

Originally a prime example of the kind of affordable, in-fill development Kelowna needs, with the old Rutland Elementary School heritage building incorporated into the site, it’s now a stark reminder of why provincial firefighters would like to see the building code change.

“This building is built to B.C. Building Code standard, which (means) the suites, the hallways and common areas are all fully equipped to the National Fire Protection Association Standard…

“The roof assembly and the crawl space in the roof is not protected by sprinkler, nor is it fire stopped,” said fire chief Jeff Carlisle, at a news conference Wednesday, a day after the entire roof of the building burned off.

The blaze started at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday in a barbecue on a second floor balcony, then fuelled by an addition propane tank from a barbecue on the third floor balcony above, spread quickly up the outer wall.

fire chief“You look at it, it comes out the outside of the building, goes into the soffits of the roof. That’s the biggest challenge for the firefighters once it gets up in there because it’s gone above the sprinkler systems,” said Carlisle. “It renders (the sprinklers) basically ineffective.”

B.C. fire chiefs would like to see wood-frame construction “fully sprinklered” with spray on balconies, in windows and roofs, he said.

It’s likely the residents currently trying to piece their lives back together would say the same.

Sasha, a 28-year-old single mother who did not wish her last name to be used, had no shoes on when she fled the building, fleeing a fire that spread so quickly the flames were climbing the outer walls before firefighters arrived.

“I just grabbed my kid and ran,” she said, her five-year-old-son, Kain, in her arms.

A renter without insurance, she was visibly upset as she stood before the crowds of onlookers, the sheer bulk of which prevented fire trucks from arriving sooner.

deput fire chiefBy the next day, deputy fire chief Lou Wilde could only say residents like her would likely be taken back into the building one at a time, when safety permits, to retrieve anything salvageable.

As there is no longer a roof on the fourth floor, the rain and threat of thunder Wednesday did not help the situation; although, for those on the first three floors, Wilde was cautiously optimistic.

Restoration crews and insurance adjusters were already on site and he had personally seen the first two floors and said they only sustained smoke and water damage with some walls even remaining white.

Whether the building is a write-off or not, Wilde could not say as he greeted reporters for a press conference on the lawn along Rutland Road Wednesday morning.

He had no problem commenting on whether barbecues and wood-frame construction mix however.

“I don’t believe you can stop people, but obviously it’s a good safety practice to not have a propane barbecue or any of those types of things on your balcony in this type of construction,” he said.

A column of black smoke could be seen from almost anywhere in the city virtually from the moment the fire was called in Tuesday as fire trucks headed to the scene.

Elaine and Ron Fountain, owners in the building, said they did not hear the alarm, they simply saw smoke and fled. Ron didn’t even have a shirt on his back.

Pam Solmonson, who has only lived on the top floor of the Legacy II building since March, was among those who knew her belongings were likely lost.

“Everything is completely toast. Everything is gone,” she said through tears as she stood outside the building watching it burn under the early evening sun.

Eugene Mak saw the middle of the L-shaped building burn while standing inside the complex it all happened so quickly.

“The fire alarms were going and people were shouting outside…I looked out the window and the middle section of the building was on fire,” he said. “I got out straight away; I only had one sock on.”

Residents like Solmonson were to meet with the fire department and Emergency Social Services Wednesday evening to go through information with the building’s strata council, the insurance company, restoration contractor and Red Cross staff.

The fire took 71 career and paid on-call firefighters, four fire engines, two ladder trucks, one rescue unit, a command unit, fire safety officer and deputy chief to fight.

On Saturday, firefighters battled another major blaze at a condominium building on Franklyn Road in Rutland.

Members of the public wishing to donate funds to assist the victims of both fires are encouraged to contact the local branch of the Canadian Red Cross at 250-491-8443 and mention the Kelowna Apartment Fires Fund.

—Files from reporter/photographers Wade Paterson, tweet @PatersonWade, and Alistair Waters; written by Jennifer Smith, tweet@jaswrites

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