No indication fire alarm, sprinkler were working in former Plaza Hotel

A recent inspection found the building that housed the former Plaza Hotel and Monty’s strip club had a functioning sprinkler and fire-alarm system, but there’s no indication either worked on Monday, when fire broke out.

“That’s one of the issues we’ll probably be following up with in our investigation,” said Victoria Fire Chief Paul Bruce.

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The sprinkler and fire-alarm system were inspected on March 21 and April 26, and the sprinkler system was found to be in compliance.

The alarm was functioning, but needed an up-to-date service record, which was not completed upon the fire inspector’s return on April 26.

Two days before a third scheduled inspection to review outstanding issues with the owner, fire broke out in the building at 603 Pandora Ave.

Firefighters were alerted at 5:18 a.m. Monday by an alarm from a neighbouring building.

Upon arrival, firefighters found the fire in the basement was raging with no obvious signs of being doused by a sprinkler.

The fact that the systems didn’t work on Monday, coupled with how quickly the blaze accelerated in the wood-frame structure, is of concern to firefighters, Bruce said.

The chief said he’d be reluctant to say the fire would be investigated as an arson, as no investigative work has been done.

“The fire was substantial in the basement area and that is certainly a concern for me and, I’m sure, our prevention and fire-investigation division,” Bruce said.

On Tuesday, an excavator stirred up some of the smouldering debris in an attempt to uncover remaining hot spots, but tried not to disturb any evidence that could lead to the cause of the fire.

Fire investigators were not able to begin their work, however, because the fire was still burning and the site is considered unsafe. A structural engineer will need to determine whether the building is safe enough to enter for an investigation.

“You’ve got an unsupported wall sitting there,” Bruce said.

“If we got a gust of wind, would that be enough to take it down? We’ve got a very important roadway, an arterial passageway there, and people that live across the street, a storefront across the street. There’s a lot of factors we have to take into play with how we’re going to deal with this structure once we get the fire out.”

Victoria police and fire officials have not been able to locate the building’s caretaker, Mike Draeger, who was known to stay at the building on occasion.

“It’s a huge concern, obviously,” Bruce said. “Our minds would be very much at ease if we determined he was anywhere but at the building.”

Firefighters continued to fight the blaze overnight Monday into Tuesday. Walls crashed and floors collapsed as the building, with the exception of most of the exterior walls, imploded. Hot spots burst into open flames.

The city hopes to maintain the remaining exterior walls and features of the Plaza Hotel, designated heritage in 2013, if it can be done safely. The fire chief says that will be assessed by structural engineers.

“It’s a matter of safety first,” Bruce said. “Whether the building was built yesterday or 100 years ago, we don’t want walls being compromised and falling on our members or falling anywhere.”

The main facade on Government Street, which is covered in glazed brick, with concrete sills and lintels, is considered of heritage significance.

Watching the flames continuing to flare up Tuesday morning, carpenter John Elving said he can’t imagine why Victoria would want to preserve the facade of the 1910 building.

“That’s ridiculous,” Elving said. “It seems ludicrous to me to try to protect it. It’s spending a whole bunch of money to make a building look old. Put a new building in and make it look beautiful. It looks disgusting. I wish they would take it down quicker.”

Government Street street between Pandora Avenue and Johnson Street remained closed and behind fencing on Tuesday, while Pandora was open.

City hall was closed due to the poor air quality from smoke.

A skeleton crew remained at the CTV News Vancouver Island office on Pandora Avenue, adjacent to the burnt-out building, allowing the majority of workers to leave the smoke-affected building early.

Mountain Equipment Co-op was also closed, as it is inside the fenced-in area on Government Street.

Tom Heemskerk, who lives two buildings away at 1407 Government St., was able to collect some belongings from his condo on Monday night. He returned briefly Tuesday, escorted, to collect more dog food. He says his building had some water damage on the bottom floor but that his condo seemed relatively untouched.

“It’s an active fire and they have to investigate to make sure it’s safe,” Heemskerk said. “It’s an inconvenience, but I think I got off pretty easy here.”

Heemskerk said he’s had concerns about living beside an abandoned building. “Any vacant building is a problem, right. It’s not being used. The power’s been off. I don’t know if alarms were up. There’s always issues with that. There’s always worries about that.”

The former strip club closed in January 2013 and the derelict hotel was bought by West Vancouver-based Ocean Gate Developments in August 2016. It had been the subject of a redevelopment application.

The most recent proposal, reviewed by council in December 2018, was to preserve and rehabilitate the ground and upper floors and develop a new two-storey addition above the present roofline and an addition on the north and east elevation, according to the city.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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