Port Alberni RCMP are investigating a fire that broke out at Glenwood Centre on Thursday as arson.
The incident happened during the Community Living Month annual fun fair, and nearly 300 children, families and adults with developmental disabilities were in the building at the time.
The fire started in a garbage can inside a changeroom on the east side of the building, Port Alberni Fire Dept. Chief Kelly Gilday said. “It appears some material was ignited.”
Black smoke began billowing out of a vent over the door of the changerooms shortly after 5 p.m., midway through the fun fair.
Program staff quickly evacuated the nearly 300 people who were in the building enjoying the Community Living Month fun fair. “They evacuated nicely and the building was vacant when we got there,” Gilday said.
An automatic aid call immediately went out to neighbouring volunteer fire departments, which is standard protocol, Gilday explained. “A large structure like that, it’s an automatic mutual aid call,” he said. “Those ones, you need the extra staff, you need the extra people.”
Although the blaze wasn’t large, it filled the community centre with smoke, meaning firefighters had to spend several hours ventilating the building. “There was a lot of smoke inside the building,” Gilday said. “(There is) heavy smoke damage to the changeroom and washroom area.”
The file has been turned over to the RCMP, he said.
Port Alberni Association of Community Living executive director Craig Summer commended the staff members at the event for evacuating the building quickly and helping to reassure people that they were safe.
“Some people were upset and we had some anxiety,” he said. “It took a while for them to be debriefed afterward.”
Some of the adults had been dropped off by their caregivers, so staff members had to call and make sure they had rides.
“I think all the organizers did a really good job of getting people safely and calmly out of the building,” he said. “It could have been quite chaotic because there were several individuals in wheelchairs, sebveral clients with anxiety.”
The fun fair is held every October to celebrate Community Living Month, and to bring awareness of community living and community inclusion to the public, he added.
The Alberni Energizers had been raising funds through hotdog sales for their participation in Operation Track Shoes, an annual track meet, Summer said. The fire meant they lost about half an hour’s worth of concession sales. Otherwise, the event wasn’t a fundraiser, it was more of an awareness event.
One of the biggest disappointments to PAACL members, Summer said, was that the cakes from the cake walk were ruined. It was the most popular event at the fun fair, he added.
“All the cakes are either made or donated by various people,” he said.
The PAACL has celebrated its 60th anniversary with several different events this year, and will culminate with a Christmas party at the Best Western Barclay Plus Hotel on Dec. 8. This event will also be open to the public.