A suspicious fire at a former Traveller’s Inn in Victoria broke out late Sunday then reignited within hours early Monday, sending tenants back out onto the street and causing nearly $1 million in damage.
One person was taken to hospital for smoke inhalation and later released. About 60 of the apartment-hotel’s 85 units were occupied, said building manager Marlene Grineage.
The original fire broke out about midnight in the three-storey, wood-frame building at Queens Avenue and Blanshard Street.
The fire started in a truck in a ground-level parking space underneath the back of the building. Grineage said the truck belongs to the building’s owner, Robin Kimpton. He could not be reached for comment.
Flames quickly consumed surrounding debris, including old mattresses, and travelled up the carport and via a light fixture into voids including the elevator shaft and chimney.
About 4 a.m., firefighters using thermal-imaging cameras determined there was no evidence of further hot spots and left the scene. Victoria Acting Battalion Chief Wayn Moody said embers were likely too deep in the chimney and elevator shafts to show up.
Tenants returned to their suites, only to be driven back outside when alarm bells sounded again at 7:21 a.m. Gas and electricity were shut off.
“Someone was running down the hall — just like last night — shouting ‘There’s a fire, there’s a fire,’ and that’s when I grabbed my roommate and told him we had to get out,” said Matthew Brown.
Amy Desbiens, still holding a towel over her mouth, said she pounded on neighbours’ doors on her second escape.
“I came out shaking and I couldn’t breathe,” Desbiens said. Unable to get down one staircase because of thick smoke, Desbiens ran to another. “I saw the staircase was just black so I didn’t want to go that way.” She rescued cat Petals from under her bed.
Clayton Mowatt was shaving when he saw smoke come up through his floor. “I just grabbed my cellphone and [identification] and ran,” Mowatt said.
Moody said the original fire must have smouldered in the chimney shaft that leads up through the middle of the building from the boiler room to the roof.
The second time, multiple fire crews tore down ceilings and ripped apart walls. Another crew climbed a ladder to attack the fire from the roof.
“Thirteen suites are unable to be occupied,” Moody said. “This could be potentially $1-million damage when all is said and done.”
Moody called the fire physically demanding as well as challenging. The Saanich Fire Department was called in for assistance.
“It’s a lot easier when you know where it is than when you have to go find it,” said Moody, adding contacting the building’s owner and insurance company also proved challenging.
Tenants young and old, covered in everything from dressing gowns to blankets, stood shivering outside until emergency social services arrived with a bus and refreshments. By 3 p.m., most tenants were allowed to re-enter their suites, one at a time, to grab essentials.
About 40 per cent of the tenants are on disability assistance, Grineage said. Rents in the building range from about $710 to $1,100 a month.
Tenants’ reactions to the fire ranged from resignation to outrage.
Some tenants say the building is rundown and poorly maintained, while management says some tenants cause the damage themselves, leaving out food and piling up garbage in their units, attracting rodents.
Tenisha Leinweber said her unit has had bed bugs and mice. “It’s rundown. It’s disgusting.”
Rachel Ormiston was visiting her disabled mother, Heather Raybone, 62, when the fire broke out. She wants her mother to move out, but says the building is all she can afford that will also allow her cat, Sunny.
She pays $750 for a bachelor suite. “It’s not a good place for my mom,” Ormiston said. “There’s a lot of things going on in the building.”
Rick Barnes, 60, has been off work for about a decade with a spinal-cord injury and walks with a cane and a limp. He has twice launched and won tenancy disputes with the owner, he said. His $710 unit is all he can afford on disability payments.
Kimpton bought the 23,000-square-foot building in 2010 after the Traveller’s Inn chain went bankrupt.