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Cause of Northlands fire remains under investigation

New regulation may help to prevent further incidents

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The investigation of the April 15 fire at a condo building on Northlands Boulevard is underway, but Resort Municipality Fire Chief Geoff Playfair said, like many fires, they may never know what the cause was.

Similar to the November 2015 fire at Alpine House — in which all residents were displaced from the 21-unit building and the cause of which was never determined — Playfair now shifts to his role as a sort of fire detective.

"Sometimes you have a fire and the evidence just goes away — literally it burns up and you'll not find it," he said.

The Saturday fire started on a balcony at about 11 p.m., but there was no barbecue to cite as the starting point. Fires in wood-frame, three- or four-storey condos that don't have sprinklers on the balconies can provide key conditions for fires to spread.

"It's not unusual when you have a fire on a balcony that has an overhanging roof on — it's easy for the flames. The heat rises through that vent system and it's drawn into the attic and then it finds nice dry wood that's been protected by the roof for years," he said.

The flames took off as firefighters battled the blaze until early the following morning. Those affected in the 20 units took to Facebook to plead for clothes, makeup and a place to stay.

One fire victim posted: "Please let me know if you know (of) a room or condo to rent in North Star or Lagoons for coming days or months."

Another accepted the Hilton Resort and Spa offer for an Easter Sunday brunch, saying: "Thank you massively Hilton Whistler Resort and Spa and to all Whistlerites for your help so far..."

Lisa St-Amand, director of sales and marketing at the Hilton, said she first learned of the fire the following morning as she was making a special Easter breakfast for her family.

"I'm flipping pancakes looking at my beautiful daughters and my house and thinking wow, we're so lucky. You kind of take these things for granted so it really hit me and obviously (the Hilton) would want to do what we could," she said.

Once the Facebook thread was established, people came through with offers for, among other things: a snowboard, clothing, shoes and bed linens. A meeting room at the Hilton was set up to accept donations and St-Amand said the donations just poured in. She added that the Hilton was also prepared to offer accommodation.

"We didn't end up being needed for any rooms but we were certainly prepared to give them and are still prepared," she said.

Whistler residents displaced by the Northlands fire are encouraged to register with Emergency Social Services by calling 604-966-4845. The Community Foundation of Whistler is also accepting monetary donations for those displaced by the Northlands fire. Donations can be made online at www.whistlerfoundation.com.

Playfair said the RCMP has a trained fire investigator, as does the insurance company that sent its own investigator on Monday to the site. From here, Playfair said he will continue to interview witnesses and pore over photos and videos, which can be difficult since rumours start to swirl about the fire cause, as there was with the Alpine fire in 2015.

"There were a lot of reports of wood ashes set out on the wood pile from the fireplace at the time," he said. "That rumour had no basis in fact because the place had no fireplace. So it's interesting how the stories develop," he said.

A problem with older, wood-frame construction is the lack of sprinklers on balconies. In the last few months, the provincial government has provided an amendment to the building code that could allow municipalities to adopt bylaw requirements concerning balcony structures. The February 2017 amendment repeals the current installation of sprinkler systems in residential buildings up to and including four storeys, with one that reads it will be: "Standard for the installation of sprinkler systems in low-rise residential occupancies."

Playfair said the B.C. Fire Chiefs Association meets in June when there likely will be a discussion on this.

In the meantime, he said the investigation continues.

"It is a bit like a mystery and trying to solve it, sometimes you're successful and sometimes not. But it's about taking all the evidence and not jumping to conclusions," he said. "I have to sift through a whole lot of information. Everyone's memory gets a little twisted as to the timeframes and what they thought they saw or didn't see."

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