The fire in May at Silverlynn Apartments, which left one senior dead and displaced dozens more, was deliberately set by the woman who died, according to North Vancouver RCMP and District of North Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services.
Crews were called to the Lynn Valley seniors apartment complex around 6 a.m. on May 31 following an explosion and fire in a third-floor apartment. Soon after the fire was out and first responders found the body of a 73-year-old woman in the suite, district crews turned their investigation over to the RCMP.
Police declined to explain the details of what happened early that morning but they did provide the conclusion of their investigation.
“What we can say is that the fire was intentionally set and that the death is not criminal in nature,” said Sgt. Peter DeVries, North Vancouver RCMP spokesperson. “Other than the person who died, there were no additional people involved in this incident.”
The identity of the woman has not been released.
District fire chief Brian Hutchinson acknowledged the unusual nature of fire and the difficult questions it raises.
“It is an unfortunate situation and for many, many reasons ... in terms of the displacement of individuals and the outcome for one of the individual involved, but there’s so many questions that we have that just can’t be answered,” he said. “And that’s the unfortunate part too.”
Because of the nature of the blaze, engines and crews from the North Vancouver City Fire Department and West Vancouver Fire & Rescue were called in to help, Hutchinson said.
“Obviously, the use of an accelerant created a more extreme fire environment than a normal structure fire,” Hutchinson said. “And while there was damage to the building, there’s no question ... we were able to limit the amount of spread due to the number of personnel that were able to respond, and to the speed with which we were able to get there.”
Nathen Gabriel, who was in his apartment immediately below the explosion, described a terrifying scene.
“I was sitting at my laptop and was frightened out of my wits,” he said. “The explosion ripped the balcony window and door – including its metal frame – right out, and a huge tongue of flame and billowing smoke immediately issued from the now exposed interior of the apartment.”
Immediately after, more than 70 residents were displaced from Silverlynn. Those who lived in the building portion untouched by the fire, smoke and water damage were able to return home within a few days but the wing of the building where the fire occurred and the 36 apartments in it remain sealed off today.
Affordable housing crisis
Trying to re-house the displaced seniors was a challenge unlike any other faced by local emergency response and seniors’ groups, say members of North Shore Emergency Management and Silver Harbour Centre for seniors.
“This event left me with incredible questions from an emergency management program perspective,” said Emily Dicken, NSEM director. “For me, there’s a lot of heartbreak that hasn’t really been shared.”
Currently, when residents are put out by a fire, they can receive 72 hours of emergency social services including hotel accommodations, which North Shore Emergency Management helped co-ordinate. Beyond that, though, the situation becomes less clear.
“Clearly, there are really significant gaps in terms of support and services at the community level. As a municipality, how do we really wrap around the most vulnerable members of our communities?” she asked. “Seventy-two hours isn’t long enough to pick up the pieces, especially when they don’t have insurance or other financial mechanisms that that help them get over that hurdle of the immediate crisis.”
Silverlynn’s residents are largely on low, fixed incomes and many live with disabilities and/or face language barriers in accessing services, noted Annwen Loverin, executive director of Silver Harbour.
“The depth and breadth of vulnerabilities certainly stood out in this situation,” she said. “For many weeks, there was simply nowhere else for these seniors to live and it took a vast amount of work.... There is nothing available and it was a matter of scrambling to just find any type of housing.”
With some luck, they were able to find temporary housing in student residence buildings on campus at UBC, which Emergency Social Services and Emergency Management BC. agreed to pay for – but there was a looming deadline to find another solution before students returned.
It was a tense time, for the seniors and the people working to find them a place to stay in a threadbare affordable housing system that has no mechanism for a sudden spike in demand.
“I can’t praise North Shore Emergency Management and BC Housing enough for what they did for us. That said, the six weeks at UBC were very stressful for us because of the uncertainty of our situation,” Gabriel said.
As of November, 11 of the original households have returned to Silverlynn to live in apartments where vacancies have become available elsewhere in the building.
“BC Housing helped the remainder [of residents] access new housing appropriate to their individual needs through non-profit providers, other housing options, and directly managed BC Housing projects in North Vancouver, West Vancouver, Vancouver, Burnaby and Richmond,” a statement from BC Housing read. “New housing was prioritized based on individual need and availability at the time of application.”
Seniors in isolation
Finding housing is one thing, but losing one’s neighbourhood presents new challenges for residents who are already under tremendous stress, Loverin said. Relocation can lead to isolation, which is a danger to seniors in its own right.
“I am sure that all of the seniors concerned are grateful to have housing, but it is incredibly difficult to move out of your community where you might have a number of different supports connections, routines that help you lead a healthy and engaged life,” she said.
Gabriel said he makes almost daily trips back to the North Shore from his current residence in North Burnaby and he’d very much like to come back permanently.
According to BC Housing, those who want to return to Silverlynn Apartments will have their applications prioritized by Lowland Senior Citizens’ Housing Society, which owns and runs Silverlynn.
But when Silverlynn’s damaged wing will be habitable again is not clear. Even before the fire, residents in the building had been pleading with the province to provide badly needed repairs to the building, which was dilapidated and rotting. BC Housing was already working with Lowland to fund the needed repairs, but those have now been delayed by the fire.
“Capital repairs at Silverlynn Apartments are still in the planning stages, and both overall scope and BC Housing funding toward that project will be made public after they have been confirmed,” the statement from BC Housing read.
Lowland Senior Citizens’ Housing Society did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Loverin said the situation has also highlighted the need for mental health services accessible to seniors.
“It’s only actually been … maybe in the last decade that we’ve actually focused on seniors’ mental health support that many are in need of,” she said. “There is sometimes a greater desire among seniors than amongst other age groups to cover up or not share mental health issues. And there can be, amongst seniors, sometimes an added stigma of mental health concerns.”
When a local senior is identified as struggling, Loverin said, they “absolutely require professional medical assistance and support.”
If you – or someone you know – is in crisis or distress, know that you are not alone. There is help and there are people who will listen. Talk to a family member, a teacher, a doctor, a coach or a person you trust. Call 911 or go to the nearest hospital emergency department.
Call the Crisis Centre at 604-872-3311 or provincewide at 1-800-SUICIDE. Young people can call the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 to speak to a professional counsellor.
Families dealing with mental illness can call the Pathways Serious Mental Illness Society at 604-926-0856.