In the wake of the massive Alexander Square condo fire, Langley Township council has voted to boost its fire prevention and inspection capacity, to attempt to prevent similar blazes in the future.
On April 19, the under-construction condo complex at the corner of 208th Street and 80th Avenue burned to the ground. One whole wing of a six-storey wood-frame condo, along with a row of townhouses, were destroyed or seriously damaged.
Because the building was only half-finished, Alexander Square was a largely empty shell made of plywood. Unlike with an occupied building, there were no fire sprinklers yet in place to stop it, and the empty windows, with no glass, allowed the fire to draw in air from every direction.
The blaze sent chunks of charred wood and building materials flying, with some landing about a mile away. Nearby buildings, sidewalks, and parked cars were covered with ash and cinders. Local streamkeepers raised concerns in the days after the fire about toxic chemicals and debris washing into fish-bearing streams.
At the height of the fire, there were 50 Langley Township firefighters on scene, along with half a dozen from the City, with 15 total fire trucks.
No one was hurt, but more than 500 people and their pets had to temporarily evacuate, and power was knocked out to almost 4,000 people.
In May, the Township council voted to ask the fire chief for recommendations to reduce the likelihood of similar fires in the future.
Fire Chief Stephen Gamble’s report included a few core recommendations:
• Approve hiring a new fire prevention officer for 2022
• Develop a proactive “hot work” educational awareness program for the construction industry and other related stakeholders
• Expand the current fire department’s Company Inspection Program to include inspections by firefighters during the construction phase of all multi-family buildings
• Where required, update or amend the Township’s Construction Fire Safety Plan to match the National Fire Protection Association’s 2022 standards.
Gamble’s report noted that buildings under construction present unique challenges for firefighters – including the proximity of possible sources of a spark, such as electrical equipment, welding gear, and roofing tools, to easily combustible materials.
Almost every town in the Lower Mainland has had a major structure fire in an under construction building in the past 15 years, Gamble noted.
The council was eager to move forward with the change.
Mayor Jack Froese at first suggested that the funding for the new fire prevention officer be sent to discussions of the 2022 budget. The new position will cost the Township about $155,000 in annual salary, benefits, and expenses.
But other councillors were eager to get the process of hiring moving faster.
“I can’t imaging council saying no to getting some additional fire protection, given what occurred in Willoughby,” said Councillor Eric Woodward.
Coun. Bob Long suggested moving ahead with all the recommendations immediately.
“I’m sure it’s well worth it,” he said.
That raised a question about funding, with Coun. Petrina Arnason asking about currently available funds for firefighting.
“We have no surplus or extra funds,” said Township administrator Mark Bakken.
Only Coun. Kim Richter suggested that the new position might not be needed, saying existing fire department staff should be used to step up inspections, rather than new hires.
He noted Township staff are trying to defer some projects to get the budget back to equilibrium.
But council voted to move ahead to approve all the recommendations.
The final vote to approve the measures was unanimous.
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