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Against The Odds

Huge structure was too far gone for interior operations but fire fighters did conduct limited searches when a resident was reported missing; they worked hard to protect exposures.

December 7, 2007
By Capt. DAN PIPPEN

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16The alarm came in just as the town was awakening and it would turn out to be a very taxing day for fire fighters in Princeton, British Columbia. At 6:55 a.m. on Saturday, April 8, 2006, a call was received by a 9-1-1 Police Dispatcher: "Send the fire department to the Princeton Hotel quickly." Then the call terminated. The police dispatcher immediately contacted Penticton Fire Dispatch and the Princeton Fire Department was paged: "RCMP request Princeton Fire Department at the Princeton Hotel." One minute later as Assistant Chief Rob Banks turned the corner onto Bridge Street he could see the street in front of the hotel was filled with smoke. At that point a second page was requested indicating smoke was visible on scene. Banks also requested dispatch to have the local electric and gas utilities, RCMP and EMS attend the scene.

Pumper #4 arrived and Banks instructed its crew to lay it's 4" supply line from one block away.

There was a hydrant in front of the hotel but it was not used because it was in the collapse zone. As Pumper #5 was en route, it was directed to used a parallel street to reach the north side of the hotel. A double 2-1/2" supply line was laid. Pumper #4 is the only pumper with 4" those. Pumper #2 also laid a double 2-1/2" supply line upon arrival.

Fire Chief Eric Gregson was soon on his way and called for mutual aid while he was en route to the fire. "I knew we were in for a long fire call when I saw the column of grey-black smoke coming from the centre of the building." said Gregson.

It was a clear, calm day with the temperature hovering around 15 Celsius.

Incident command was quickly established. The command post was located just south of the hotel on Bridge Street.  When the B.C. Ambulance Service later arrived, a rehab and first aid station was established near the CP. Food service was also located in the same area. During this incident fire fighters were routinely cycled through rehab and then reassigned upon their return to the fireground. The RCMP and staff from the provincial emergency program provided traffic and crowd control and helped the displaced residents through their victim services program.

The Princeton Hotel was built in 1912 when the town was busy with mining activity. It was a 120' x 120' two-storey brick building with a 50' x 120' below grade basement. During its heyday it was one of the finest hotels in the interior of British Columbia. Half of the first floor at the time of the incident contained a pub on one side of a centre stairway to the second floor. The other side had a cold beer and wine store. Upstairs, 22 rooms formed a "U" around an atrium that did not extend to the first floor. The rooms were rented to low-income residents. The hotel and rear parking lot took up most of a city block. Approximately 12 feet from the north wall was a concrete block building housing a variety store. The buildings across the street on three sides were older wooden structures.

First-in units found heavy smoke being pushed out of all the second floor walls, windows and between the first and second floors. Fire was visible inside the front entrance. Crews attempted to advance hose lines in through the front door, but were stopped by heavy fire conditions.

Meanwhile, a primary search crew was sent up the rear fire escape to conduct a search. Heavy dense smoke and heat were encountered. "We advanced about 40 feet in with zero visibility," said Capt. Ryan Corsi, "then the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I knew it was time to leave."

A report to the incident commander was received of a disabled resident still in the building. A ground ladder was set up and access gained to a balcony that ran the length of the building. An attic ladder was then used to gain entrance to the room in question. Finding no one, fire fighters retreated. Shortly after that the front window of the pub blew out engulfing the ladder in flames. The resident was later found in the crowd.

Class A foam was pumped into the basement in an attempt to control the fire, but the heat was too intense. A portion of the floor in the lobby was starting to collapse into the basement, which by now was an inferno. Fire had also taken hold of the concealed spaces and false ceilings common in buildings of this age that have undergone many renovations and additions. As conditions deteriorated a decision was made to conduct exterior attacks only. Air horns were sounded and all fire fighters pulled back. The accountability officer then conducted a roll call to ensure all were out and safe.

Mutual aid began to arrive: Tulameen, 25 minutes away, Hedley, 20 minutes away, each sent three fire fighters. Both departments have only one engine and so fire fighters arrived in their personal vehicles. Keremeos, 45 minutes away, sent an engine with five, bringing the total number of fire fighters on scene to 26, including 15 from Princeton. The engine from Keremeos was held in reserve in case of a subsequent alarm while the fire fighters joined the battle, using 2-1/2" lines but were ready to be released if another alarm came in.

The fire was declared under control at 11 a.m. and by 4 p.m. it was declared out. A crew remained on scene until Wednesday monitoring any hot spots, keeping the scene secure  and assisting with the investigation by the fire commissioner's office and the RCMP.

Problems encountered included heavy smoke at street level and lack for adequate water supply.  A 2" supply to the hotel broke when the floor collapsed, further decreasing the flow. At the height of the fire 2,700 gallons per minute were being poured onto the fire building. This represented the total pumping capacity of the department's three pumpers. "I would have like to have had more flow onto the fire but it just wasn't available," Chief Gregson said later.

Another concern was the fire hydrant located on the Alpha Bravo corner. If the building collapsed on it more water flow would be lost. The corner did collapse, but the hydrant was thankfully undamaged. During the fire the reservoir supplying the downtown area dropped from 22 feet to five feet, but the town's water system was able to supply the pumpers the maximum the trucks could use. Some vinyl siding was melted on buildings across the street and the variety store and another building sustained water damage. An estimated 700,000 gallons of water was used at this incident.

"Despite water supply problems, lack of an aerial, and limited (personnel), we stopped the fire from spreading," said Gregson. "All fire fighters at the scene put in a tremendous effort. We tried hard to save this historic landmark, but the building was doomed before the alarm was even sounded."

No fire fighters were injured during the incident. A resident was believed missing and police searched for human remains as the ruins were demolished. None were found. Damage was estimated at 1.7 million. The cause of the fire was determined to be "probable arson."

"We are a small department and we don't have that many structure fires," noted Gregson, "but in the three weeks prior to this fire we had three structure fires. The lessons we learned at each fire were critical in ‘The Big One'. The value of the Incident Command System, the use of an Accountability Officer and Safety Officer were reinforced.   One thing we learned was the need for a standard accountability system for all departments in our mutual aid area.

"Princeton is quite a distance from major population centres and we are used to making do with what we have. This fire put our department to the test and our members met the challenge."


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