Robert Allan and his wife, Carol Callahan, had only been in their Penhold apartment for the past six months.
They lost everything Thursday evening after a fire completely consumed the three-storey building, sending two people to hospital with smoke inhalation. No one else was injured and all residents in the 18 suites were accounted for by Friday afternoon. At least 30 people lived in the building.
“It was finally a home; we’d just finished furnishing it,” said Allan on Friday. “We moved out from Ontario to start over. We lived in a van for a while, then a motorhome . . . .You get choked up about it.”
Allan and Callahan were driving to pick up a new car when they saw black smoke in their rear view mirror as they were leaving. Allan said the structure went up so fast they didn’t have a chance to go back and attempt to save anything — even their cats.
Flames and thick smoke began billowing out from the Wild Rose Manor, just off Hwy 2A on the southwest side of the town, around 5:42 p.m. when emergency crews got the call from a nearby peace officer.
By Friday morning, nothing was left but a layer of crumbled, smoking debris. Ash was scattered on lawns three blocks away.
“It was burning very fast,” Penhold fire chief Jim Pendergast said Friday morning. “We used a lot of Class A foam to help the water penetrate the molecules of wood and other materials. We’ve used thousands of litres of this foam. We ran out of it last night and brought in another 1,800 litres this morning. It was a very expensive fire.”
Firefighters also removed a number of propane tanks on site but couldn’t get them all, causing a few explosions, with debris hitting firefighters. None were injured.
Seventeen hours later, crews were still pouring water on the rubble and working to control hot spots. Pendergast said it was under control around 11 a.m. on Friday.
A fire investigator was expected to be on scene later Friday afternoon to continue the investigation with the help of RCMP. No cause had yet been determined but Pendergast noted the building was about 35 years old and was not up to code. It also did not have a sprinkler system. Pendergast estimated the damages to be over $1 million.
Residents living in homes surrounding the site were also evacuated on Thursday evening over air quality concerns. It is not yet known when they will be back in their homes as the water has also been shut off to that neighbourhood.
Holly Whitney is one of these residents. She lives in a four-plex adjacent to the manor on Esther Close and said she saw the tires melt off a truck parked outside the building. She said her home and vehicle are both in good shape.
As of 3 p.m. Friday, Hwy 2A was still shut down but expected to reopen later Friday night.
Penhold residents are being ask to limit their water use for the next few days in order to allow the reservoir to regain its normal levels.
While only two people were taken to hospital, Penhold Mayor Dennis Cooper said a third person who was living in the apartment building, a pregnant woman, is also now in hospital in Red Deer and in labour.
Those with nowhere to go gathered at the Memorial Hall and were later moved to the Penhold Multiplex. Many have since found alternate accommodations, Cooper said.
Only two hours after the fire, community members had filled the hall with clothes, food and other necessary products.
Ashley Dickson, 22, who had been living at Wild Rose Manor for two years, said she’s grateful for the support. Dickson was out with her boyfriend at the time of blaze and still can’t believe she’s lost all her belongings.
“It’s unreal,” she said. “I wish we were there because we would have tossed as many things out as possible.”
Dickson’s apartment was on the ground level and she’d left her patio doors open. She said she hopes her two tortoiseshell kittens, Leela and Peach, escaped. She has been putting posters up to help find them.
“It’s been overwhelming, the level of support. There were mountains of clothes and blankets . . . .We have so much so now what we really need is cash donations to help people with larger items like couches and chairs,” said Julie Dallaire, community services manager with the Town of Penhold.
Volunteers with the Canadian Red Cross were also on hand and the Salvation Army in Red Deer was at the multiplex on Friday handing out gift cards to those affected.
The Red Cross Emergency Response Team has registered and conducted needs assessments for 30 evacuated residents so far. The Canadian Red Cross registration will reopen on today and Sunday at the Multiplex from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Those who have been affected by the fire are encouraged to register during these times.
The Canadian Red Cross is working in partnership with the Town of Penhold and Salvation Army to ensure those impacted have their basic needs met.