Firefighters pour water on to a fire consuming an apartment in the 1800 block of 31A Street Friday. Frigid weather presented a challenge as equipment froze and layers of ice formed.

Firefighters pour water on to a fire consuming an apartment in the 1800 block of 31A Street Friday. Frigid weather presented a challenge as equipment froze and layers of ice formed.

Blaze forces 52 residents from home

It’s a sound they’ll never forget.

Snug in their beds, oblivious to the bone-chilling temperatures outside, the 52 occupants of the Skyline Manor on 31A Street awoke to hear an alarm piercing through the darkness of early Friday morning.

“I looked out off the deck and it was fully involved,” said Cain Ward of flames gaining in strength.

“I threw my shoes on and I went down the hallway and banged on doors. Another fellow kicked doors open to let people know.”

His beloved cat was left behind in the second-floor unit.

“I’m prepared for the worst,” said Ward.

The fire alarm — which sounded just before 5 a.m. — also roused Steve Roach.

“I went out into the hall and it was just red and covered in smoke,” he said.

Fully awake now, Roach scooped up his wife and two children. Out in the hall, thick smoke forced them to crouch as they made their escape.

“I’m surprised we got out of there,” he said.

With most of the tenants in pyjamas or wrapped in blankets, there was a concern about exposure given the -17 temperature awaiting them out on the street.

Emergency officials whisked them off to nearby Vernon Jubilee Hospital, where the cafeteria quickly evolved into a reception centre. 

Every effort was taken to keep the residents warm and to address any anxiety they may be experiencing.

“We had the whole health infrastructure available at the hospital,” said Brent Watson, Vernon’s Emergency Social Services co-ordinator.

“The hospital did an exceptional job in opening its doors to us.”

ESS personnel ensured all tenants were accounted for, and made arrangements for emergency access to food and lodging for 72 hours.

“After that, there are resources like the landlord’s insurance and other agencies,” said Watson.

Also touching base with the tenants was Jeet Dukhia, who has owed the apartment for five years.

“Everyone is safe and I thank God for that,” he said.

With immediate needs addressed, the focus for most tenants has become the long-term. 

Personal effects have been lost and, in at least the case of Roach and his family, there is no content insurance.

“I don’t know where we’re going and what we’re doing,” he said.

As they suited up and climbed aboard their trucks, Vernon firefighters knew their pending battle would be formidable.

“As soon as the guys left the department, they could see it,” said Dean Wakefield, fire investigator.

Apartment fires are worst-case scenarios.

“The first thing you hope for is that everyone got out,” said Lawrie Skolrood, deputy fire chief.

“There’s people sleeping and old apartments have concealed spaces. There’s all kinds of surprises.”

Once on scene, the crews went into attack mode and entered the building. They got as far as the third floor, but their lives were soon at risk.

“We pulled them out because of the integrity of the roof,” said Skolrood.

From then on, a defence strategy was initiated and all action occurred from the exterior of the building. 

Enormous aerial ladders hung over the structure, allowing firefighters to  direct a torrent of water deep inside.

But while water is vital to bring fires under control, it quickly becomes treacherous when the mercury plunges.

Ice clung off of power lines and encased vehicles and firefighters’ jackets. A river of water flowed down 31A Street, creating a slick hazard for anyone trying to access the hospital. The public was asked to only visit VJH for urgent cases because of the conditions.

The other challenge was equipment, such as pumps and respirators, freezing up for the firefighters, which included forces from Okanagan Landing, BX-Swan Lake and Coldstream.

Firefighters remained on scene for much of Friday, and it was unlikely that the search for a cause would begin until later this weekend or Monday.

“The building will have to be assessed to see if it’s safe to go in,” said Wakefield.

“The floors on the northeast corner fell right into the parkade.”

With growing concern that the apartment block may be in a weakened state, people living in an adjacent building were evacuated in case a wall collapsed.

While there were some rumours that the cause of the fire may be suspicious, authorities insist that hasn’t been determined.

“To say it’s suspicious in nature, I’m not sure we would go that far,” said Gord Molendyk, RCMP spokesperson.

Dukhia is insured but he says it’s too early to speculate as to whether the building is salvageable or if he will rebuild.