Emergency aid flows to Penhold fire victims

PENHOLD — Hotel rooms, emergency cash and refunds on rent and damage deposits are among the support being provided to 30 people whose apartment building was razed in an inferno on Thursday.

PENHOLD — Hotel rooms, emergency cash and refunds on rent and damage deposits are among the support being provided to 30 people whose apartment building was razed in an inferno on Thursday.

Tenants in the 18-suite Wild Rose Manor at the south side of Penhold were forced out of their building just before suppertime when a fire broke out on a second-floor balcony, totally engulfing the building in a matter of minutes.

Fire Chief Jim Pendergast said on Sunday that investigators are fairly certain that the fire started with a wood, pellet or charcoal-fired barbecue or smoker on a second floor balcony.

The unit caught fire and embers dropped to the floor below, quickly igniting the siding on the 40-year-old building.

Any propane tanks that exploded during the fire would have been secondary to the original blaze, said Pendergast.

The structure had originally been built with cedar siding, which was later covered by some other material but remained highly flammable, he said.

Built in the mid-seventies, Wild Rose Manor pre-dated fire codes that were enacted later on to slow down the spread of a fire, including requirements for fire doors, fire walls, sprinklers and fire retardant materials.

There are a number of older apartment and hotel buildings throughout Alberta that do not meet newer codes because they have not been renovated since those standards were revised, said Pendergast.

Firefighters remained on the scene until 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, when they passed control to the building’s owner.

Pendergast said it is extremely fortunate that, although some pets were unable to escape the fire, no humans were killed or injured.

Probably the happiest news arising from the scene is that an expectant mother who went into labour the day after the fire delivered a healthy baby boy on Friday night. The baby’s father spoke briefly with the Advocate on Saturday, stating that he and the mother would like to avoid publicity while they sort out where and how they and their new baby will live.

HELP

The Town’s first priority has been to look after its people, including helping them find new accommodations, Mayor Dennis Cooper said after meeting with former tenants at the evacuation centre, set up in the library at the Penhold Multiplex.

The building’s owner also attended on Sunday, bringing along a cheque book to refund rent and damage deposits to former tenants, said Cooper.

While Canadian Red Cross volunteers organized the evacuation centre, registered evacuees and arranged for their immediate needs, the Salvation Army put up the money to house people in local hotels and the Province of Alberta provided debit cards for emergency cash.

Finding new housing for everyone is going to be a huge task and it’s likely that most will have to leave Penhold, at least for now, said Cooper.

Wild Rose Manor was one of only two apartment buildings in Penhold and the town’s current vacancy rate is at .001 per cent, he said.

New housing is going up at a rate of 100 units a year and there may be some fourplexes, but everything available is already occupied.

Red Cross volunteer Jodi Manz-Henezi of Red Deer said the emergency response worked exceptionally well, with volunteers and donations flowing to the scene almost immediately.

As of Sunday afternoon, almost all tenants had registered with only a couple of people yet to check in.

Donors have provided a large array of goods, including blankets, clothes, toys, toiletries and furniture that are yet to be distributed to the evacuees. Many of those goods will be stored until the displaced tenants have found new homes and can properly assess their needs, said Manz-Henezi.

At this point, therefore, cash donations are most helpful because that money can be targeted more specifically, she said.

The evacuation centre was closed down at 3 p.m. on Sunday, with the Town Office being the collection point for any further donations, said Cooper, who raced home from a conference in Kananaskis Country when he learned there was a fire, phoning people to help out as he drove.

Cooper said he was amazed at the immediate and well-organized response Penhold received from within and outside the community, including RCMP detachments, neighbouring fire crews, government and non-government agencies, town councillors and individual volunteers.

Like all of the town councillors, he is now battling a cold after spending three sleepless days in and around the emergency response centre, set up in the Town Office training room on the second floor of the Multiplex.

BRAVERY

Cooper said he was particularly amazed with the bravery displayed by a flight instructor from his aviation business, who is also a volunteer firefighter for the Town of Penhold and a former tenant in the burned-out apartment building.

Mike Torris said he was in his third-floor suite when he thought he smelled garbage burning. He looked outside, expecting to see a grass fire or something similar. Spotting flames licking up the side of the building, he ran out the door and down the stairs, calling Red Deer fire dispatch on his fire radio.

Once outside and seeing the extent of the fire, he kicked his way back through the security door and ran back into the building shouting to other tenants and kicking open locked doors on the second and top floors to make sure there was no one inside.

He kicked open the door on his own suite in hope of rescuing his cat, but the rooms were already engulfed in flames and the floor beneath him was starting to burn.

Torris said he’s not sure how he managed to get back down the stairs and out of the building, but remembers dropping his fire radio as he crawled for safety, looking back at the flames and billowing smoke and realizing that he would not have time to retrieve it.

The radio had done its job, however. Fire trucks were one the way even as the first calls started going to 911 and before the emergency tones were sounded at the fire halls, he said.

Torris said on Sunday that, although he is saddened at losing his pet, he is thankful for being able to help get people out of the people in time.

He added that he has received many offers of a place to stay and other forms of assistance, but feels that other tenants have the same or greater needs. He asked that donors contact the Town Office, which will ensure that all offers are shared fairly among everyone who was displaced from the building.

RESOURCES

Cooper said battling the blaze exhausted the town’s water supply, which comes from two wells that feed two reservoirs. Both reservoirs were emptied in the 20-hours it took to get the fire out, he said.

Town residents and businesses are being asked to conserve water as much as possible to give the wells time to recover and refill the reservoirs.

In addition to the depleted wells, the town’s fire department took a beating with large amounts of consumables used and destruction of some of its equipment, including burned hoses, said Pendergast.

However, fire engines worked flawlessly and the training of each firefighter proved itself with no injuries and no problems with breathing apparatus.

“I am so proud of how professional and dedicated the firefighters were,” said Pendergast.

Some people have also question why the town was put into a state of emergency, said Cooper. He and his council, working under the advice of an emergency response specialist, felt declaring a state of emergency would give responders the tools necessary to close off streets, enter homes and evacuate areas if needed, he said.

bkossowan@bprda.wpengine.com

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