Officials deal with aftermath of Alberni fire

A firefighter puts out a hot spot behind the burned out apartment building on Wednesday morning.

A firefighter puts out a hot spot behind the burned out apartment building on Wednesday morning.

Fire crews are hopeful they will be able to find what caused the fire that destroyed an apartment building on Athol Street—as soon as they are able to get into the building that was still burning Wednesday night.

The fire began in a stairwell, which is suspicious, Port Alberni Fire Department Chief Tim Pley said. However, because of the way the fire burned “we think there’s a good chance we’ll find evidence where the fire started,” he said. “We feel there’s still enough unburned material there.”

The fire began around 5 a.m. Tuesday in The Downtown Manor, a 26-suite building stretching almost all the way from Fourth to Third Avenues on Athol. It was still smouldering Wednesday night. Pley was making arrangements as the News went to press to bring in an excavator and tear the building apart so crews could knock down hotspots once and for all.

Pley said it’s the most challenging fire he’s ever dealt with in Port Alberni; the department has had crews on hand for more than 24 straight hours.

“It’s a learning curve for us,” he said. “We’re not used to these kinds of fires that are defensive and long term.”

At one point, the fire department was pouring 3,000 gallons per minute on the fire, and the pressure of the water knocked out a wall—sending a flood of water down Third Avenue. Firefighters used the same amount of water trying to put out the fire on Tuesday that the entire city uses in a day, utilities superintendent Brian Mousley said.

Resident Bob Frechette was one of two people who had to be rescued by the ladder truck, after the fire in an emergency stairwell barred his way downstairs from the third floor.

“I got up thinking it was a false alarm,” he said. “I started to get dressed and down the hall I could hear banging. I thought maybe we have a problem.”

Frechette searched for his cat, stuffed his pet into a sack and dropped him into the waiting arms of a neighbour.

A truck driver, Frechette had only returned home Monday night so was able to retrieve his still-packed duffel bag of belongings. Other residents, like Kaisha Stiles, weren’t so lucky. Stiles was still in her pyjamas when she grabbed 20-month-old son Brodee and fled the building.

“I got out with nothing,” she said as she watched the fire consume her second-floor apartment.

Emergency Social Services has provided housing for the first 72 hours, and city emergency co-ordinator Laurie L’Heureux is liaising with other agencies to find help for the 56 people who are now homeless.