An apartment fire in Upper Lonsdale has left 18 people homeless.
Multiple 911 calls came in just before 4:15 p.m. Wednesday when residents noticed smoke coming from a three-storey walk-up apartment at 2601 Lonsdale Ave.
As the first crew was driving up Lonsdale, they noticed a large column of smoke billowing into the sky and called for more support.
The fire broke out in a second-storey unit and spread to the floors above. While crews were able to quickly knock down the fire, almost all of the building’s 12 apartments sustained damage and won’t be habitable, according to North Vancouver city fire chief Dan Pistilli.
“The amount of heat and smoke damage on all floors is quite substantial,” he said.
There were reports of explosions, likely from a small propane canister in one unit, Pistilli said.
The tenant from the suite where the fire started was taken to Lions Gate Hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation, but was released within a couple hours. No one else was hurt, although for one family, it was a very close call. They were trapped in their unit by thick smoke and needed rescue by their neighbours.
Damon Pappas was at home and playing video games when he heard the building’s smoke alarms. At first he thought it might have been someone’s cooking getting overdone.
“I opened the front door… It was just covered in black smoke. I took one step out and couldn’t move. It was crazy. I couldn’t breathe,” he said.
Pappas ran to the fire exit. When he got outside he saw a family on the second floor screaming for help and trapped in their unit by the heavy smoke. Quickly, he backed his Jeep up to the edge of the building and neighbour Jeremy Zirk, who had just arrived home from work, scrambled up to the window to help a young mother, child and grandmother down one by one onto the vehicle’s roof.
Pistilli praised Pappas’ and Zirk’s actions as “heroic.”
“We’re very thankful for their efforts. While we were suppressing the fire, they were performing a rescue for us off the back of the building. It’s quite a story,” he said.
Zirk and Pappas, however, are brushing off the label.
“You don’t really think about it at the time. You just do what needs to be done,” Zirk said.
Afterwards, the family and Pappas met up again on a bus TransLink provided to temporarily shelter the burned out residents.
“They came up and gave me a big hug and were crying and were super appreciative. I think they were a little shaken up,” Pappas said.
It will be up to the building’s owners and insurance company whether it is salvageable but the apartments might have been headed for demolition regardless. Developer Pezzente Holdings has applied to build a six-storey residential project that includes 27 rental apartment units and 17 strata units. Residents had been told they’d have between nine and 18 months to vacate, should City of North Vancouver council approve the project.
Coincidentally, city fire officials had just finished reviewing the plans for the new building about two hours before the fire, Pistilli said.
Investigators were planning to be on site until Friday at least, but so far, it appears the fire had been accidental, Pistilli said.
All of the victims have been offered 72 hours’ stay at local hotels and been given fresh clothing and toiletries by emergency social services. In the meantime, the building’s property management firm is looking to rehouse the displaced tenants at other buildings they own around the Lower Mainland.
Tenants were allowed back into their suites briefly on Thursday to collect any precious items, important documents and medications that hadn’t been lost to smoke, heat or water damage. Very few of them had renter’s insurance, Pistilli said.
“They’ll be starting from scratch. It is very difficult for people. I really encourage people to get out and get the insurance,” he said.