Firefighters Sam Anderson and Sean May were singled out for praise as city officials conducted a debrief on Sunday’s Polaris Apartments fire.
Thirty firefighters were needed to bring the fire under control, but not before the top floor had been destroyed. An engineer must now assess the building’s remains to decide if anyone can enter the wreckage and retrieve items.
Officials say the incident began as a room-and-contents fire in unit 306 of the ageing building, which was not equipped with sprinklers.
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Speaking on Monday afternoon, fire chief Darcy Hernblad hailed the actions of firefighters who rescued a tenant trapped inside that unit.
“Sam Anderson and Sean May were the two on the initial attack crew,” said Hernblad.
“The fire was so intense in unit 306, they had to spray a lot of water because of the heat for them to get inside.
“They got inside, found the victim, and got them out. I’m really proud of their efforts and what they did.”
The occupant was taken to hospital suffering from severe smoke inhalation. Their present condition isn’t known.
Hernblad said the operation had been complicated by a number of factors, particularly the presence of shiplap – a dense, wooden board – in the building’s roof structure.
“The initial crew that went inside felt they had the fire almost under control. They were just about there, then they realized the fire had breached through the ceiling space,” recalled Hernblad.
“We use a tool called a pike pole, which allows us to push up into the drywall and pull down big chunks so we can spray water at the fire in the ceiling space. In this particular building, the poles were only going through two or three inches and hitting a solid surface.
“It ended up that the trusses inside this building had shiplap laid down on top of them – whether it was used for a walkway, or part of the construction, or storage we’re not sure. That shiplap wouldn’t allow us to open up the ceiling the way we normally do.
“The fire started to gain momentum and we started to lose it in the ceiling space. That’s when we changed from offensive to defensive mode.”
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That meant retreating outside the building and tackling the fire from the outside – the start of a long process that lasted from the early hours of Sunday until the evening.
Shiplap is not illegal and doesn’t violate any code, but fire crews didn’t know it was inside the building.
“With the thermal imaging cameras they were using to find heat sources, that shiplap was going to deflect any heat sources on the other side,” noted public safety director Dennis Marchiori.
The Polaris Apartments complex, owned by Northern Property REIT, had no sprinkler system in place as it was built before the city’s sprinkler bylaw came into effect.
Marchiori believes the building did possess a local alarm, smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors.
“As building and fire codes come in, anything built prior to that is grandfathered under the old code,” he explained.
“The moment [the building’s owners] go in to make any improvements or renovations, they then have to match the code of the day. With the sprinkler bylaw, if they did any structural renovations to that building, they would have to go according to the code.”
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Marchiori understands some insulation work on the exterior of the building had taken place, but this wouldn’t require the fitting of sprinklers according to the code.
Northern Property is believed to be working on major renovations to a number of its Yellowknife properties.
“But it’s a big company with a lot of units,” added Marchiori. “I think it’s going to take them a long time to go in.”
What happens next to the remnants of the Polaris complex won’t become clear for a while.
“At this point, because we’ve seen some buckling in the walls and there’s been so much disturbance on the third floor, the building is completely unstable,” said Hernblad.
“They’re going to call in an engineer to take a look and determine if somebody can still get in or not.”
RCMP earlier said the fire is being treated as suspicious, but a cause has yet to be determined. Neither Hernblad nor Marchiori would comment, as the investigation is being handled separately by RCMP and the fire marshal’s office.