No easy answers in wake of fatal fire, says Langley City mayor

Retrofitting older buildings with sprinkler systems would be 'significant, significant upgrade' says Peter Fassbender

  • Apr. 5, 2013 2:00 p.m.
Firefighters rescue a woman trapped on her balcony after a fire broke out in the suite next to her on the second floor of a building at Rainbow Lodge in Langley City on Wednesday morning. One person died in the fire.

Firefighters rescue a woman trapped on her balcony after a fire broke out in the suite next to her on the second floor of a building at Rainbow Lodge in Langley City on Wednesday morning. One person died in the fire.

The fire that tore through the Elm building at Langley’s Rainbow Lodge on Wednesday morning, killing an elderly man and critically injuring three other people was a terrible tragedy, said the City’s mayor.

But bringing the six buildings in the aging complex up to modern-day fire codes will be a prohibitively costly endeavor, added Peter Fassbender.

The building in which the fire broke out was not equipped with sprinklers, but because the complex for low-income seniors was built in 1983, it is grandfathered under the new building code and therefore does not require them, he explained.

Fassbender was outside the Elm building for much of the day on Wednesday as firefighters from both the City and the Township worked to extinguish the fire that destroyed or damaged up to 40 units in apartment block.

As he watched firefighters, paramedics and other emergency service personnel work, Fassbender was particularly moved by the sight of an elderly woman being given oxygen on her balcony while crews battled the fire in the unit next to hers, because it was too difficult for her to climb down a ladder.

“It would have been so scary for her,” he said. “Never mind the rest of us watching.

“That just made me stop and think, ‘OK, I’m not just going to say, there are no sprinklers, there’s nothing we can do.’

“That’s true in the short term. In the long term it’s critical for us to look at, ‘Is there anything we can do?'” said Fassbender.

“What I’ve asked our building inspector and our fire department to do in light of (Wednesday’s fire) is to look at what options do we have.”

There won’t be any easy or inexpensive solutions, he said.

“For (the Lions Society) to retrofit those buildings with sprinklers in those buildings would be a huge cost … It’s a significant, significant upgrade that would be required.”

And where that funding would come from is another huge question mark.

“There may be funding we can be advocating for from other levels of government,” said Fassbender.

“Where to find the money is always the challenge. A lot of these societies raise money on their own.

“And if you redevelop, where do (residents) go to live? It’s not a small issue by any stretch.”

•••

Altogether, Rainbow Lodge provides housing for seniors as well as disabled and mentally ill people in 587 units in six buildings.

According to the Lions Housing Society website, the first three buildings in the complex, collectively housing 291 units — Alder, Birch and Cedar — were built in 1975, with the Dogwood building (95 units) following a year later.

The Elm building (104 units) was constructed in 1983 and, finally, the Fir building (97 units) was completed in 1989.

Despite their age, Fassbender said the buildings are being well maintained by the Langley Lions Senior Housing Society.

“This is not a criticism, by any means, of the Langley Lions or their housing society and how they’ve looked after the buildings.”

And it’s not just Rainbow Lodge complex that needs upgrading, he noted. There are a number of other buildings — both residential and commercial — in the City that lack sprinkler systems.

Over time, the City’s plan is to see them torn down and replaced by safer structures.

“The vision of the Downtown Master Plan is to get rid of old, tired buildings that really have challenges, both from a visual point of view and from a functional point of view,” he said.

“At the same time, I don’t want seniors who live in other (older) buildings to feel fear.

“In an ideal world, I’d like to close my eyes, snap my fingers and come up with the resources to help retrofit and replace all the buildings of that era.”

•••

Although the cause of the fatal fire was not being released on Friday, City of Langley fire chief Rory Thompson said the investigation was being jointly undertaken by the City’s fire investigator and the RCMP.” He added that it will be up to the police to release the name of the victim.

On Friday morning, a closed session was held for residents of the complex, to give them an idea of what will be happening over the next weeks and months.

While the fire-affected wing of the building could take several months to repair, Thompson said he is hopeful that occupancy can be re-established in one of the wings as early as the end of next week. Another wing will take perhaps up to two more weeks.

An outreach session for evacuees will be held on Monday, April 8, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Evergreen Lodge, said emergency planning co-ordinator Ginger Sherlock.

A resiliency centre will be set up, including representatives from the Salvation Army, Red Cross, ministry of social development and BC Housing.

“Everyone that needs to be there,” Sherlock said.

“They are going to come and see what are your needs and how they can help.”

– with files from Gary Ahuja