Firefighters upgrading to deal with condo blazes

The knock on the door came early Sunday morning for many residents in condos as RCMP scrambled to evacuate buildings near a development under construction in Murrayville.

Shortly before 4 a.m. on May 17, a member of the Langley RCMP noticed a massive amount of smoke and flame coming from a condo development being built on 221st Street just south of Fraser Highway.

“The heat and flames were so intense that two other condominium structures began to catch fire,” said Langley RCMP Cpl. Holly Largy. “The flames were estimated to be as high as 50 feet into the air.”

Condos are springing up in Murrayville, Willoughby, and Walnut Grove, along with hotels and other buildings three storeys or taller.

The Langley Township Fire Department has been upgrading its equipment and training, said assistant chief Bruce Ferguson.

The service formerly had only one older ladder designed for dousing multi-storey fires.

When it was replaced, the department bought two “quints,” multi-purpose fire trucks with 75-foot ladders. 

“We can probably reach four stories if we get close enough,” Ferguson said. Five stories might not be out of the question, he said.

Although tall buildings are more common, they are also safer than the multi-storey structures built decades ago in Langley City and other nearby communities.

In 2013, a man died in a fire in a Langley Lions-run seniors apartment housing complex. The older buildings didn’t have built-in sprinklers.

By contrast, the newer multi-family buildings are required to have sprinklers, which gives fire crews a leg up, Ferguson noted.

Fire alarms are also built in and tested more frequently.

“Early detection is the best defence,” said Ferguson.

Making sure everyone knows how to get out safely is up to apartment owners or condo strata associations.

Some residents, particularly in seniors homes, may have mobility issues. A strata may provide a list of disabled residents and their units, which can help a fire crew concentrate on apartments that might need help in an evacuation.

But people move, and the data may not be updated.

“It’s difficult to keep that information fresh,” said Ferguson.

The difficulty of an evacuation was apparent in Sunday’s fire.

The condos nearest the fire are home to many elderly people and people with mobility issues.

“Regardless of the fact that a fire alarm was sounding in these buildings, nobody was evacuating their residence,” Largy said.

The RCMP member called for help from other officers to help with evacuations. Surrey RCMP, Abbotsford Police, road safety units and canine officers all came to help with the evacuation while firefighters tackled the blaze

“When necessary, doors were breached to ensure everyone got out quickly and safely,” she said.

By about 4:30 a.m., some 200 suites had been cleared.

A Langley RCMP member went to hospital for exhaustion and smoke inhalation.

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