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Council seeks ways to fund sprinkler installation

Fire destroyed a 32-unit apartment building at Ash Street and Fourth Avenue in New Westminster early Friday morning. - Shane MacKichan
Fire destroyed a 32-unit apartment building at Ash Street and Fourth Avenue in New Westminster early Friday morning.
— image credit: Shane MacKichan

In the wake of last Friday’s big blaze in Uptown New Westminster, city council wants senior governments to help owners of older apartment buildings install sprinklers, and the city’s MLA is prepared to take up their cause when the provincial legislature opens next week.

A large fire at 404 Ash St., early Friday morning destroyed 31 units and left 36 residents scrambling to find places to stay. Since the three-storey walk-up was built in 1969, long before building codes made sprinkler systems mandatory in 1991, the apartment block did not have any.

On Monday, Coun. Chuck Puchmayr made a motion calling on the federal and provincial governments to develop options, such as infrastructure funds or tax breaks, to help building owners upgrade their sprinkler systems without passing the cost on to tenants. Council will debate what measures it will propose at its next meeting on Feb. 19.

“I’d like to see, some day, every one of them sprinklered, but how we get there we’ll have to walk gingerly,” said Puchmayr.

New Westminster has a large number of wood-frame buildings—364 of them, with 233 built between 1950 and 1970—for the size of the city.

“We are an average-sized city with big-city needs,” deputy fire chief John Hatch told city council. “We have many more wood-frame (buildings) than average communities.”

However, Puchmayr said it’s a much broader issue that is applicable regionally, provincially and nationally. He is worried if it was made mandatory by the city there would be “renovictions” because landlords would either abandon or demolish their buildings if they couldn’t afford a retrofit. Puchmayr pointed out a change in provincial legislation would be needed for the city to have the authority to impose the requirement on its own.

New Westminster NDP MLA Judy Darcy promised to advocate for changes when the legislature resumes sitting next week.

“I’m going to do everything I can to support them,” said Darcy, who also plans to explore mandatory insurance for landlords that covers renters because none of the building’s occupants had any. “If they take it out individually it could be cost prohibitive. Other provinces and countries have it.”

She said her office has been kept busy assisting the building’s residents, particularly with the task of reacquiring proper identification.

Hatch, one of the first firefighters on the scene, told council some had criticized his department, saying they took too long to get to the fire. He said this was unwarranted because they arrived six minutes after receiving the first call. A fire alarm was pulled alerting building residents to evacuate, but that action did not automatically mean the fire department had been notified. Someone has to call 911 for firefighters to respond, he said.

He said the fire is still under investigation, but added the department is working to ensure the safety plans of older New West apartment buildings are up to date and appropriate education for residents is provided.

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