Two views, one incident
By Steven Sorensen
August 2016 - A massive fire at a 20-unit apartment building in Sooke, B.C., displaced 19 residents and was a wake-up call to emergency services about the need to plan for large-scale, long-term evacuations.
By Steven Sorensen
As is the case for many municipalities, the Sooke fire chief is also the emergency co-ordinator. Whether or not the chief having these two hats is a good idea is another conversation, but needless to say it does pose some logistical challenges during major incidents. This is a look at the incident from my role as a fire chief, as well as my role as the emergency co-ordinator.
■ Fire response
On July 4, 2015, at 12:42 a.m., Sooke firefighters and, through automatic-aid agreements, members of Otter Point and Metchosin fire departments, were awakened by the well-known but still unnerving, shrill alarm of their pagers. Dispatch was reporting a structure fire in an occupied commercial building. Arriving first on scene in Battalion 1, the Sooke duty officer reported heavy fire showing from the centre portion of a ground-floor unit in a two-storey wood-framed, 1960s vintage, 20-unit apartment building.
Fire had already lapped up over the balcony on the unit above and entered the second-floor suite. Heavy smoke was showing from the corridor doors on both floors that led to the suites through the centre of the building. Members of the Sooke RCMP had arrived just a few moments before the fire department and began pounding on doors and evacuating scared residents from the building. Despite the sounding alarm, some of the occupants either ignored or slept through the alarm and had to be awakened and told to leave. RCMP then confirmed with the building manager that all residents had been evacuated from the fire building as well as an adjoining apartment building.
Fire trucks were quickly assigned as they arrived. Engine 1 was tasked to stretch two preconnect compressed air foam (CAF) lines to the Bravo side and hit the fire directly. Ladder 1 was assigned to the Charlie side and was to ladder the roof and prepare for a defensive attack if required. Engine 2 arrived next and was assigned to rapid intervention team (RIT) with assistance from the Metchosin engine. Otter Point arrived with two engines and provided water supply to Ladder 1 and additional crews to assist with ventilation and begin a search of the second floor for fire spread. Ladder 1 reported that fire had broken through the roof and was spreading laterally along the width of the roof to the upper apartment on the opposite side of the fire origin.
Residents of the burning apartment building were mingling on the street, watching in obvious distress as all their possessions appeared to be going up in flames. The fire grew rapidly and immediate calls for additional mutual aid were made to bring in two additional engines, one each from the East Sooke and Langford fire departments. Due to the complexity of this fire and the fact that many residents would be displaced, the Sooke Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) was activated, which in turn notified the Emergency Social Service (ESS) volunteers to set up a reception centre and to begin arranging emergency lodging and care for the victims.
A fast exterior attack quickly knocked down the main body of fire in the two burning apartment units. Additional crews arrived from East Sooke and Langford fire departments and were tasked with ventilation and overhaul, pulling ceilings in the corridor and several suites to gain access to fire travelling within the attic spaces.
When the fire appeared to be out, crews forced entry into all remaining units to ensure that the fire had not spread into other voids. Finding no other areas burning, the fire was declared fully extinguished shortly after 4 a.m. Salvage work continued for some time and crews also searched for several missing pets. All pets were safely located and returned to their grateful owners with the exception of one cat that was discovered shortly after arrival.
While the fire itself was not overly complex to handle it did require a significant amount of equipment and personnel; the last crews returned to the station around 6 a.m.
■ Lessons learned:
- Use of compressed air foam system provided a relatively quick knockdown on the main body of fire.
- Automatic-aid agreements sped up response time for neighbouring departments.
- Quick requests for additional mutual aid meant other companies arrived before crews were at the point of exhaustion.
- Common accountability systems throughout the region made tracking and operational assignments much easier to accomplish.
Later investigation determined that the fire originated in a couch located in the lower centre suite, likely from carelessly discarded smoking material. One resident who assisted in the evacuation was taken to hospital, treated and released that night. The occupant of the suite of origin had escaped just in time, however, he suffered significant smoke inhalation that required a three-day stay in hospital.
All 20 units in the apartment building sustained some degree of damage from heavy fire to light smoke. As well, due to the age of the structure and the use of asbestos in many of the building products, including the drywall texture material, Worksafe BC declared the building unsafe and contaminated by asbestos. This declaration meant all the exposed portions of the entire building and all its contents were considered contaminated and could not be saved unless properly cleaned. None of the residents had insurance so they lost of all their possessions, even those that were not damaged by fire. The building was fully insured, with losses estimated at $2,000,000.00, however, it would take approximately one year to decontaminate and rebuild the structure. All residents were forced to find new accommodations.
■ Emergency response
Activation of the Sooke EOC and ESS teams occurred shortly after arrival of the fire department and confirmation that many victims of the fire had nowhere to go. Fortunately, the community of Sooke has well-trained municipal staff to operate its EOC as well as dedicated volunteers to operate ESS during these types of incidents.
A call to Emergency Management BC – the province’s co-ordinating agency for all emergency management activities – resulted in a provincial task number that provided funding to cover 72 hours of emergency care including the necessary expenses to house, feed and clothe the victims. An emergency reception centre was quickly established at the Sooke Community Hall – the designated facility for these types of operations following procedures outlined in the Sooke Emergency Plan. Approximately 15 volunteer ESS members arrived at the community hall and quickly organized how to take care of the residents, many of whom are vulnerable members of the community.
Sooke Fire Rescue Service’s Volunteer Emergency Support Service members drove victims to the community hall where their needs were assessed. July is the start of a busy summer season, so accommodations can be tough to find, especially at 2 a.m. on a Saturday. Fortunately, a local hotel had just enough rooms to take care of the displaced residents, most of whom had left with only the clothes on their backs. However, this solution was short-term as the hotel was fully booked the following weekend.
While the first 72 hours of care were covered, thoughts now turned to the longer term. What could be done with all the victims? Fortunately the local chapter of the Canadian Red Cross stepped up and, through its resources, offered assistance and financial aid to the displaced residents. With this offer and some very generous donations and community support, residents’ expenses were covered for the first week.
In the days following the fire, countless meetings and phone calls were held. Through the Sooke Emergency Program, co-ordination among agencies became a monumental task. There were many groups and agencies involved or trying to assist including:
- The building owner
- Insurance companies
- Fire investigation
- Building inspection department
- Site safety and security
- Restoration companies
- Worksafe BC
- The Province of BC – Social service agencies and Emergency Management BC
- The Canadian Red Cross
- The Sooke Legion, Lions Club and other local service groups
- Local church groups
- Concerned residents
- Local restaurants providing meals for displaced residents
- Hotel staff (one resident damaged a room while in emergency care and was escorted from the building by RCMP.)
Co-ordination of agencies, meetings and phone calls were all handled through the Sooke Emergency Program, but the fire department had to continue its day-to-day operations and emergency response calls; this made the dual role of emergency co-ordinator and fire chief a challenge.
The Prestige Hotel in Sooke, where most of the residents initially stayed, graciously provided a meeting room for victims of the fire to meet with members of the Red Cross, representatives of some local service clubs and members of the fire department/emergency program. In the initial days, meetings were held every other day to update residents on the situation. These meetings proved to be a positive approach even though there was little good news. The residents appreciated being apprised of accurate information; as is often the case, inaccurate rumours were abundant.
With a limited pool of rental accommodation in Sooke and all tourist accommodations booked or available only at peak-season rates, there was nowhere for displaced residents to go in their own community. The Red Cross was able to obtain another week of accommodation for approximately half the residents in a Victoria motel 40 minutes away. The remaining victims found temporary accommodation with family or friends; some even opted to set up tents in the hopes that their apartments would be repaired before the end of summer.
Approximately 10 days after the fire, a meeting was arranged at the apartment site for all residents to ask questions about what the future held in terms of repairs to the structure, when they could move back in and the status of their personal belongings. The building owner, the restoration company, the Red Cross and a local person co-ordinating community donations attended, along with three members of the Sooke Emergency Program who were asked to assist and mediate this very emotionally charged meeting. There was little good news for the residents.
- The building owner refunded rent checks for July to all residents.
- The owner also offered to return damage deposits, however, this would end the terms of any rental agreement in place.
- Almost all residents’ possessions were sent to a landfill due to asbestos contamination throughout the building as a result of the smoke and products of combustion that were carried throughout the structure.
- The restoration company was able to remove some small, valued items such as jewelry or wallets from each apartment unit.
- Volunteer members of Sooke Fire Rescue, under the guidance of our hazardous-materials trained firefighters, spent an afternoon decontaminating the small items in order to return them to the residents. It was a tough job going through the items – some were family heirlooms or personal treasures – but it was very satisfying knowing that each person was able to keep something that had huge personal value.
- Due to the extent of damage and concerns about asbestos contamination, it was estimated that it would take one year to remediate the building for occupancy.
- The Red Cross, working with the BC Ministry of Social Services, was unable to find any long-term local accommodation for the residents.
- The Sooke Legion indicated that it had many offers from community members to supply furniture, bedding, clothing and household items, however, without a place to go, displaced residents were reluctant to take the items. It was determined that residents who found new homes could contact the legion to arrange for delivery of donated items.
While the apartment fire was a challenging event for local fire departments, it was handled quickly and efficiently and concluded when the trucks returned to service. The human side of this incident has been far more trying and time consuming. Dealing with the 19 displaced residents required countless hours of tireless effort by a large group of people.
Residents continue to make enquiries and raise concerns about housing, possessions, health and long-term well-being. With few options and limited assistance, displaced residents continue to turn to their local government for assistance, which is often unavailable or beyond the capacity of a small municipality. It is likely this situation will continue for some time, however, the community continues to rally support for the residents with various fundraising events.
The fire and displacement of residents certainly opened our eyes to what might happen in the event a major disaster or long-term evacuation that affects hundreds or even thousands of residents. Now is the time for our community to prepare for a large-scale displacement because, as we in the emergency services know all too well, it is not a matter of if, but when, these types of incidents will take place.
Steven Sorensen is the fire chief and emergency operations co-ordinator for the Sooke Fire Rescue Service in British Columbia. Email him at email@example.com