There’s always a silver lining to be found when a disaster strikes in a strong community.
And Councillor Rudy Storteboom has found more than one silver lining shining bright around the fire that destroyed one of the Paddington Station buildings in Langley City nearly a year ago.
The fire left numerous residents and families without homes, but no lives were lost – “Even the pets were saved,” Storteboom pointed out – and the way the community came together in support of their stricken neighbours.
Storteboom, a resident of one of the unscathed Paddington buildings, is a council member on two levels. He is a member of his complex’s strata council and has been a Langley City councillor since first being elected in 2008.
“I thank God that nobody was killed,” said Storteboom. “That was the good news part of the story. You have to look for the silver linings, don’t you?”
Storteboom lauded the efforts of firefighters, his fellow City councillors, MLA Rich Coleman, and especially the volunteers of the Langley Emergency Program and other ordinary people who did their best to help displaced Paddington residents, right from the time the fire’s disastrous consequences were realized.
“The central component of this story is the volunteers who helped us, and the good nature of the community in fundraising and assisting the residents who found themselves suddenly out on the street,” said Storteboom.
Storteboom is one of many people, including fellow strata councillors,working with insurance and restoration companies to rebuild the burned building and bring normalcy back to the entire Paddington complex as quickly as possible.
“We’re well underway,” he said. “We hope to have that building ready for occupancy later next year. It’s a big project. We had hoped for spring, but it looks like probably fall.”
“I think they are doing a good job for us… quickly and efficiently but diligently as possible,” said of the companies and workers involved in the total restoration project.
The fire started on Dec. 12 last year in a residential unit at 5650 201A St., in one of the two condominium buildings which, along with two townhouse buildings, make up one of Langley City’s biggest strata properties.
The fire department attributed the cause to smoking materials discarded in a plant pot on the balcony, said Storteboom.
The fire spread into the attic and took out the roof, then worked its way down.
“The fire department was here within five minutes,” said Storteboom, “but unfortunately the thing had gotten away from them and it had already started its destruction.”
“I witnessed it myself,” he said. “I stood in the parking lot helplessly and watched their homes being burned.”
Langley Township firefighters soon joined their City colleagues.
TransLink provided buses to accommodate those who needed shelter, including the firefighters.
“Ultimately, the building was lost,” said Storteboom, who credited their diligence with keeping the fire from spreading to neighbouring buildings.
“They were heroes,” he said. “There were some hot spots on the balconies [of another building] that they had to put out, but had it been left unattended, it probably would have taken out the next building, and maybe even more. They did a great job for us, those guys. It could have been a lot worse.”
Even before the firefighters were done, the community’s resources came to bear on the people in desperate need.
“It all happened just before Christmas,” Storteboom said. “It’s a time when the community comes together and they look for the opportunity to do good and bring cheer, and the community really came together for us.”
Langley Emergency Program, a volunteer program hosted at the City’s fire hall, serving both Langleys has done a “tremendous job” helping people with their basic needs immediately after the fire and trying to accommodate them with places to stay, said Storteboom, and ultimately remaining as a continuing resource, helping displaced residents work through the process of getting on with their lives.
“They were there on the night,” said Storteboom. “They helped us get oriented, fed us, helped find alternative housing.”
Storteboom’s building was untouched by flames, but water service was disrupted throughout Paddington, and all the residents found themselves without power for days.
“I just put an extra blanket on the bed,” he said. “I got off really lucky.”
Now he’s just happy to do what he can to help rebuild and bring people back together. “There’s a sense of community that we all feel, now that we’ve pulled together through this hardship.”
There have been numerous fundraisers and special events to help out.
“The churches hosted special activities,” said Storteboom, “including a dinner at Langley Vineyard Church and pizza and a movie night at Southgate Community Church. And then Karen Lee Baaten took the lead on a country music marathon at the Langley Events Centre, and they raised $56,050 in keeping with the goal, which is the address of the building itself.”
The development community came out, too.
“They coughed up $175,000,” said Storteboom appreciatively. “They quietly came to us and said they wanted to help.”
All told, about $300,000 was raised.
Strings attached to much of the donated money proved “a bit of a challenge,” said Storteboom. “Most people wanted the money to go to tenants who didn’t have insurance – that didn’t include residents who might have been first time buyers and didn’t have insurance. Now those people were still burdened with property taxes and strata maintenance fees and maybe mortgage payments.”
So the strata council gave the donations to the Seventh Day Adventist Church in the Valley to handle the disbursements in keeping with donors’ wishes.
“They deal with charitable donations and that sort of thing quite often,” explained Storteboom. “We were happy to put it into their hands and keep our hands off of the money. We didn’t want to be seen as mismanaging the funds in any way.”
Meanwhile, construction has started to get the building restored as good as new – or maybe better than new.
“It’s my understanding that there will be balcony sprinklers on the new building,” said Storteboom, who added that MLA and former cabinet minister Rich Coleman helped speed an upgrade to the building code, recommended by Langley City Council on the advice of the fire department, that makes balcony sprinklers mandatory for buildings like the one at Paddington Station that was lost to a fire that started on a balcony.
Former residents of the building have been “dispersed to the four winds,” said Storteboom, but they still keep in touch. Many are looking forward to when they can return, while some renters have moved on, and even some owners may have been forced to sell their options out of financial hardship.
For those eager to return, there will be a meeting for residents on Oct. 25, with strata council members and those in charge of the reconstruction. There they will be able to choose individual options in their units: “flooring, cabinets, carpeting, and things like that,” explained Storteboom.
“We’re looking forward to bringing the family back home and introducing them to the options that are available to them,” he said, “and giving them a proper upgrade as to information.”
“I wish it didn’t take so long,” he added. “I wish it didn’t happen in the first place. But I’d like to think that we’ve got a good team on [the strata] council, and we’ve got some quality professionals helping us with the reconstruction of the building. Hopefully, by this time next year we’ll have everybody home again.”