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Businesses worried about lax security at fire site

A cash register with its drawer removed sits amidst the rubble of the Columbia Street fire that burned out more than 20 businesses on Oct. 10. The owners of some of those businesses are frustrated by the lack security at the site that has allowed trespassers to rummage through the rubble, possibly gaining access to important documents and personal effects that may not have been damaged. - MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER
A cash register with its drawer removed sits amidst the rubble of the Columbia Street fire that burned out more than 20 businesses on Oct. 10. The owners of some of those businesses are frustrated by the lack security at the site that has allowed trespassers to rummage through the rubble, possibly gaining access to important documents and personal effects that may not have been damaged.
— image credit: MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER

Some owners of businesses that were burnt out in the Oct. 10 fire that destroyed two heritage buildings on Columbia Street are frustrated by the lack of security around the site.

They say they still haven’t been allowed to access the site to retrieve personal effects and documents that may have survived, while trespassers pick through the rubble.

Mike Taschner of Pacific Income Tax said he has valuable files in cabinets that he can see are still intact in what remains of his office in a part of the building that wasn’t demolished immediately after the blaze. Some of those files may contain sensitive data.

But when he’s tried to sneak into the site he’s been chased away by police, who, he said, “read me the riot act,” after his most recent attempted incursion this past weekend.

The site has been surrounded by a blue steel security fence since shortly after the fire was extinguished, but a security guard who was posted there hasn’t been on site for weeks, according to Lynne Quesnel, who operated Moody Beads with her partner Andy Guertin.

Quesnel said she’s seen trespassers sifting through the rubble and even photographed them. Her business wasn’t destroyed by the fire itself but was deemed structurally unsound from water damage and later demolished.

Quesnel said she could still see plastic bins that contained her inventory of beads, personal effects and records from her business amidst the rubble immediately after the fire, but they’re now gone. A safe containing money and important papers is likely buried in the basement somewhere.

“No one has ever told me whether my stuff is there,” she said. “Until someone goes in and has a look, then I will never know. I’m always worried whenever I see people in there.”

That’s almost a daily occurrence said Harm Woldring, who operates The Wine Factory at McKenzie and Front streets, right across from the site.

“I can pretty much guarantee there’s someone in there every night,” said Woldring, who often finds the detritus of their salvage expeditions littered in front of his shop the following morning when the trespassers realize much of the wire and fixtures they’re pulling out is worthless.

Sgt. Diana McDaniel, of the New Westminster Police Department, said the fire site hasn’t been “a major issue.”

She said there were two recorded incidents of trespass in November. A man was apprehended Nov. 8 with a backpack stuffed with what looked like a large piece of copper pipe and charges of break and enter were submitted to Crown. And on Nov. 29 two men were issued a warning to stay away after they were caught inside the fencing.

Taschner said the site’s ongoing lack of security is illustrated by his own clandestine expeditions.

“It’s so simple and easy to get in, it takes five minutes,” said Taschner, who relocated his office to 604 Columbia St.

Taschner said while he’s managed to secret out some of his files, he’s worried those that remain could be stolen, or damaged by exposure to the elements. Each file he retrieves makes it  easier to rebuild clients’ records, some of whom he’s dealt with for 17 years. It also eases his concerns about identity theft.

Quesnel said her need to salvage items from her demolished store is as much emotional as practical.

“It kind of stalls the whole process of moving forward. Even though everything that’s in there is covered by insurance, in our hearts you want your own stuff back.”

 

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