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Blaze brings call for mandatory sprinklers

There wasn
There wasn't much left of an apartment building at Fourth Avenue and Ash Street after it was razed by a fire Friday morning. The blaze has one organization calling for the city to make sprinklers mandatory in all apartment blocks.
— image credit: GRANT GRANGER/NEWSLEADER FILE

Mandatory sprinkler system installation in New Westminster's ubiquitous older three-storey apartment blocks has been called for following a ferocious fire Friday morning.

The blaze broke out about 1:30 a.m. at a building on the northwest corner of Ash Street and Fourth Avenue. As New Westminster, Burnaby and Delta firefighters fought the fire the building burned brightly for several hours through the night until the sun rose and all that was left was smoke, smouldering walls and fallen balconies.

It left 36 residents of the building's 31 units homeless—at least temporarily—and with very few possessions. The province initially provided the residents with temporary housing for 72 hours, and then extended that for another 24 hours Monday. Social service agencies will work with the individual residents to find them longer-term housing. More than 100 residents of three nearby buildings were temporarily evacuated as a precaution.

A complete fire and police site investigation Saturday did not determine a cause, said city spokesman Blair Fryer. "There's no initial indication it was purposely caused or otherwise."

However, the speed at which it spread raised concern about the buildings, and many more like it in the city, not being required to have sprinkler systems because the apartment blocks were built before the codes required them.

The only time sprinkler installation can become required is when a building undergoes a major renovation.

Noel Ouellette, co-chair of the New West chapter of the low-income advocacy organization ACORN Canada, believes the fire highlights the need for sprinklers in all of the city's buildings. His membership is concerned about the lack of safety in New West's lower-income buildings. He fears a similar outcome to the Jan. 25 tragic blaze at a Quebec seniors home where only half the complex had sprinklers and where authorities have confirmed 28 died with four presumed dead.

"These landlords [in New Westminster] are making $600 to $900 per unit per month. With that kind of money they should be able to install a system without raising the rates," said Oullette. "Some of the income these landlords pull in every month should be enough to cover the costs. If the landlords raise the rent because they installed the sprinkler system, then the city or the province should be responsible for building more low-income housing for low-income families."

Sixty-eight residents were evacuated when a fire broke out at a similar building at 222 Ash St., on Aug. 29, 2013, and three buildings were destroyed Oct. 10 in a Downtown blaze.

"It's a big concern, and we're going to have a big discussion," said Mayor Wayne Wright. "Two fires in a short span of time is too much for any city … I don't have any answer for it yet, but we're going to have to come up with solutions."

Coun. Chuck Puchmayr, chair of the city's emergency advisory committee, said the fire department is diligent in checking out buildings but it's difficult because so many of them were built before sprinklers were made mandatory. New Westminster has a higher number of older three-storey walkups per capita than other municipalities in the region, said Puchmayr. Making the owners install sprinklers could be cost prohibitive and might mean a significant loss of affordable housing in the city.

"If you brought in legislation [to require all buildings to have sprinklers] most of those owners wouldn't be able to do it," said Puchmayr at the scene Friday. "It's a pretty significant upgrade which would probably result in those buildings being demolished."

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