Mark Rendell
Mark Rendell

UPDATED: Polaris Fire “Suspicious” Say RCMP: Arson Investigation Underway

Devastating fire may have been the result of deliberate actions. New details on how the fire was fought.

The fire that ripped through the top floor of the Polaris Apartment building on Sunday is being treated as suspicious, say RCMP.

“The cause of the fire is still under investigation,” Const. Elenore Sturko told EDGE, though the RCMP is looking at the possibility of arson.

“It has to be ruled an arson and the Fire Marshall makes that determination. We’re working with them, the so lines of communication are open,” says Sturko. “I don’t think there have been any arrests yet.”

It can be difficult to determine if arson has happened, says Sturko: “if we get there and someone is pouring gas, we can be pretty safe saying it’s an arson.” Otherwise it takes extensive investigation, and right now the RCMP is examining evidence and talking to witnesses.

The fire began in the 17-suite apartment building owned by Northern Property REIT in the early hours of Sunday morning, with RCMP responding to a call at around 1:20 am. On arrival, RCMP began evacuating the building and three officers were subsequently taken to Stanton Territorial Hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation. “It was probably because they were in there for an extended period of time,” says Sturko.

“All occupants of the apartment were evacuated by RCMP members prior to the arrival of the [Yellowknife Fire Department], except for one unit on the third floor, which was too involved with flames and smoke for the RCMP to gain access,” reads a press release from the City. “Firefighters extinguished enough of the fire within this third floor unit to gain access and found one individual who was removed immediately and transported to the hospital for treatment (severe smoke inhalation).”

“At the time they opened the door there was a lot of smoke in the room, so there was probably a severe case of smoke inhalation, I can’t confirm whether she was conscious or not,” said Dennis Marchiori, the City’s director of public safety, at a press conference on Monday afternoon.

The fire appears to have begun in unit 306 where the individual was found. “As the firefighters made their way to the third floor where the heaviest smoke was, they pretty much could tell [where the blaze had originated] by the fire coming out the bottom of the door, out the windows and everything,” said fire chief Darcy Hernblad. The two firefighters, Sam Anderson and Sean May, who entered the room to rescue the individual, “had to spray a lot of water because of the heat for them to get inside.”

For a while, between about 2 and 3 a.m., it appeared that the fire was under control. However it soon became apparent that the fire had breached the drywall of unit 306 and managed to get into the ceiling. The usual techniques firefighters use to access flames in a ceiling space –  tearing out the drywall with a pike pole – were stymied by dense planking called shiplap that ran across the tresses in the ceiling.

“The shiplap wouldn’t allow us to open up the ceiling the way we normally open up ceilings, then every time we tried to spray water in there, we were chasing the fire. The fire started to gain momentum and we started to loose it in the ceiling space and that’s when we changed from an offensive to a defensive mode.”

Once the roof and other structural supports began to fail on the third floor, the firefighters evacuated the building and continued to fight the fire from the outside. At around 6:30am the decision was made to bring in an excavator to tear down the walls on the third floor: “we had streams going in through windows and stuff, but it wasn’t doing anything, and unless we open that up we’re going to be in there for two or three days as opposed to one day,” said Hernblad.

They continued to fight the fire well into the afternoon, and a rehab centre was set up for exhausted firefighters to take a break. All told there were six fire trucks and 30 firefighters on scene.

“I couldn’t be more proud of our firefighter, they do a great job,” said Hernblad, praising Anderson and May in particular.

No sprinkler systems

Though Polaris Apartment building was up to code, with fire alarms and carbon monoxide detectors, because it was built before a bylaw mandating sprinklers in multifamily dwellings came into effect in the 1980s, it did not have sprinklers to slow the movement of the flames.

“Anything that was built prior to that is grandfathered under the old code,” explained Marchiori. “The moment they go in to make any improvements or renovations, they then have to match the code of the day.”

There were renovations done on the exterior of Polaris apartments in recent years, however because there were no large scale structural renovations NP REIT was not required to install a sprinkler system.

The incident would not likely make the city rethink its policy regarding giving old buildings a pass on sprinkler systems, said Marchiori: “The difficulty is there’s a lot of older buildings that were in prior to that sprinkler code and as long as they’re doing other fire prevention measures that should be fine.”

Marchiori said NP REIT is upgrading a number of their units, however “it’s a big company with a lot of units. I think it’s going to take them a long time to go in.”

Outpouring of support

For all the tragedy of the situation, Marchiori said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the outpouring of support for the displaced tenants, citing the drive that has begun to collect clothing and personal items. He did however suggest that people who wanted to help should get in touch with NPR first.

“There were are lot of car seats being dropped off yesterday, and I don’t think there are a lot of infants and they weren’t going anywhere… But there are other items I think the families would be needing, usually the essentials, it’s usually pots and pans, cups and mugs, things along those lines”

Right now it’s unclear when, if at at all, tenants will be allowed back into the building to collect items that survived the fire. The building is “completely unstable,” though an engineer has been called in to assess the soundness of the structure and determine if it’s safe to enter the building.

The story will be updated as more information becomes accessible about the fire’s cause.