Tenants left homeless after scramble to escape Rockland house fire

Zdenek Martinovsky lay in the fetal position on the linoleum floor of the television room at the Salvation Army Tuesday, just hours after he was plucked from the roof of his burning Rockland Avenue boarding house.

A fire broke out on the top floor of Rockland Manor at 1:50 a.m., blocking the metal fire escape. With flames licking under doors and filling rooms with smoke, some tenants jumped off one roof to another level about three metres below, they said.

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No one was injured. “I think the hurt is going to be more emotional,” said tenant Meg Macmillan, a longtime resident.

Martinovsky scrambled out of his top-floor smoke-filled room, onto a steep sloped roof, and clung for life from an overhead eavestrough. Traumatized and in his bare feet, he had to be helped by firefighters down a ladder.

“I was in shock, I’m still in shock,” said Martinovsky. “I saw flames underneath the door. . . . It was surreal.” Martinovsky, a window washer, was taken to hospital for smoke inhalation, given clothes and a pair of shoes, and released.

The early-1900s house had a manually operated fire alarm — which was pulled, according to residents — supplemented by battery-operated smoke alarms, said the Victoria Fire Department.

Tim Cherwak, 51, was awoken by people banging on his second-floor suite window. “I threw some shorts on and a girl opened the window and climbed in,” he said. “Two seconds later, this guy dropped down and came bailing through the window.

“I threw some shoes on and got out of there. It was engulfed in flames.”

There are 17 tenants in the 20-suite house; one elderly man was in hospital at the time of the blaze.

Nine men, including Martinovsky and Cherwak, were taken to the Salvation Army on Johnson Street where they said they slept, without pillows, on a carpeted floor. The remainder went to the houses of friends, family and other accommodations.

Victoria fire inspector Chris Kelly said the home at 1114 Rockland Ave. is uninhabitable because of the fire: “It’s pretty bad.” The top floor of the house was gutted. The main and second floors are water damaged. Initial reports estimated the damage at $250,000 but Kelly said it’s likely higher.

Lyle Smith, operations manager of the Salvation Army, said the 149-bedroom facility is near capacity. The fire victims will be given three meals a day and for now floor mats in the chapel — the same accommodation used during cold-weather emergencies for the homeless, he said. “We’ll make them as comfortable as we can with the materials we have here.”

Rob Johns, of the Victoria Emergency Management Agency, said motels and hotels are usually a first choice of accommodation of evacuees but “my understanding in talking to the team is there wasn’t available [space] at hotels to take these folks.”

But at least two economy motels on Douglas Street said they had vacancies Monday.

There is no requirement for building owners to find or assist in accommodation for evacuees, Johns said.

The Vancouver Island Health Authority had some of its clients in the private home and will assist them in finding alternate housing, spokeswoman Sarah Plank said.

Macmillan said a core group of tenants work and live independently.

Answering criticism that the building is in disrepair, Dale Schuss, president of Randall North Real Estate Services, which manages the building, said “the tenants were very hard on the house” and that several renovations and upgrades, including to the shared washrooms, have been done over the years.

“The ownership group is quite a compassionate group and supported this kind of building to continue,” Schuss said. How the building will be restored is up to the insurance company, he said.

According to B.C. Assessment, the house is owned by RTR Properties Ltd., on Chatterton Way. According to B.C. Registry Services, the principals of that company are three doctors — Robert A. Koopmans, Todd Jones, and Brad Halkier.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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