Nanaimo Fire Rescue officials flagged concerns about fire hazards and a worrying number of false-alarm calls at a Terminal Avenue supportive-housing complex in the weeks before a major fire that displaced several residents, according to documents obtained through a freedom of information request.
Fire broke out in one of the units at Newcastle Place at 250 Terminal Ave. North on April 8, causing significant damage to one of three modular buildings and displacing 20 people. The cause was undetermined, but Nanaimo Fire said cooking and smoking in the unit might have been factors.
The Island Crisis Care Society, which runs the 80-unit complex housing former Nanaimo tent-city residents, had already been fined $300 by Nanaimo Fire Rescue for failing to prevent false alarms, according to a March 27 letter written by fire-prevention officer Capt. Ennis Mond to Fire Chief Karen Fry.
Pacifica Housing received a similar warning as a result of 16 false-alarm calls in the 3 1/2 months after the supportive-housing complex at 2060 Labieux Rd. opened in mid-December.
“The facilitators of both sites have to be proactive and disciplined on their approach to fire safety for the occupants of these facilities,” Mond wrote. “This means that they must enforce their rules to the fullest to prevent potential fires, false alarms and unwarranted tampering of fire and life safety devices.”
Nanaimo Fire’s resources were being taxed by 13 false-alarm calls at Newcastle Place between mid-December, when it opened, and the end of March, according to the letter. Most of the false alarms were caused by smoking or cooking in the dorm rooms, according to incident reports included in the FOI package, which was obtained by a concerned Nanaimo citizen and provided to the Times Colonist.
There were two more false alarms in early April, including one on April 7 where firefighters alleged the resident was smoking meth and cigarettes, according to incident reports.
Fire-prevention officers had told Island Crisis Care staff they were concerned about several fire hazards, including rooms piled high with debris and combustible material, and smoke alarms that had been covered with plastic bags or filled with foam so they wouldn’t go off.
The incident reports include photos of rooms that appear uninhabitable because they are filled floor-to-ceiling with bike parts, plastic containers, television sets, old mattresses, suitcases and other items. Other photos show that several fire extinguishers were missing from glass cases.
In a March 21 letter to Island Crisis Care, Nanaimo Fire Rescue warned that the high number of false-alarm calls would result in a $300 service fee. Under the Fire Protection and Life Safety bylaw, a person or agency can be fined if there are more than three false alarms in a 12-month period.
That letter was sent a day after Capt. Mike Rispin sent an email to the department’s fire officers saying the number of false-alarm calls “seems like a large increase in our response and potential increase in risk to the residents’ safety.”
Karen Kuwica, a who lives near 250 Terminal Ave. North, was given a copy of the FOI documents. She said not enough was done to follow up on the fire department’s repeated safety warnings.
“It’s shocking to me that it appears the fire was totally preventable,” she said. “The fire risk should have been considered a massive risk because of the amount of lives that were jammed in there.”
Kuwica is also concerned by the taxpayer resources being used every time firefighters are called to the complex for false alarms.
B.C. Housing opened the two modular housing facilities on Terminal Avenue and Labieux Road in December, in response to the court-imposed shutdown of the tent city at 1 Port Drive. Since then, neighbouring residents have complained about a spike in crime, social disorder and fire hazards.
In a statement, B.C. Housing said staff at Island Crisis Care Society “have worked hard to ensure that fire-safety concerns have been addressed.”
All smoke detectors at Newcastle Place are operational, and smoke detectors in living units are protected with cages to prevent tampering. Heat detectors have been installed in living units and B.C. Housing has provided funding for an alarm-system upgrade.
Every week, staff check the smoke detectors and do room inspections to ensure fire safety, B.C. Housing said. Residents are not allowed to have small appliances in rooms, and they are removed if found, the housing agency said.
Nanaimo Fire conducts fire inspections on a random day each week, B.C. Housing said.
The agency said repairs to the fire-damaged building should be complete by October.
Newcastle Place currently houses 57 people and those displaced by the fire have found alternate housing.
The Island Crisis Care Society is responding to neighbourhood concerns through a community advisory committee, composed of nearby residents, business owners, staff with B.C. Housing, Island Health, Nanaimo city staff and Nanaimo RCMP.
On Tuesday night, about 30 concerned residents met with NDP MLA for Nanaimo Sheila Malcolmson, a meeting they had long been requesting.
At the meeting, neighbours detailed problems associated with the facilities, including drug dealing, discarded drug paraphernalia, public sex acts, public defecation, and thefts from vehicles and businesses, Kuwica said.
Kuwica said she has noticed fewer emergency calls at the Terminal Avenue site since April, which is when Nanaimo RCMP created a task force to crack down on criminal activity at both housing facilities.
That came after Nanaimo RCMP Supt. Cameron Miller told Nanaimo council that calls around the Terminal Avenue shelter had increased 66 per cent, when the period Nov. 20, 2018 to March 25, 2019 was compared with the same time frame a year earlier. Calls around the Labieux Road area increased by 150 per cent from the same period a year earlier. Nanaimo RCMP would not release details on how many people have been arrested through the task force.
Kuwica has seen plainclothes officers make arrests in the area, but she said the task force is not a long-term solution. “We’re still stuck in the emergency ward,” she said. “We need to have the situation stabilized.”