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Frozen fire hydrants delay fire response

Emerald Drive home suspected to be a marijuana grow operation demolished after fire



The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) is investigating why fire hydrants at the scene of a ferocious fire last weekend were frozen and unavailable for use by emergency responders.

"The fire department, and others, are looking into just what the malfunction was," said Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden.

"We outsource the maintenance of the hydrants to a private company and they were inspected and serviced in late October. It was a routine service as far as we know."

The company with the maintenance contract is Fraser Valley Fire Hydrant Services. The maintenance work was contracted out by the RMOW in 2007. A message requesting a discussion about the hydrant system in Whistler with a company spokesperson went unreturned as of the Pique's editorial deadline.

A statement from the RMOW communications department indicated hydrants are designed to work in cold weather. The hydrants in the community aren't supposed to need any special care or attention during cold weather.

The fire department got a call at 6:30 a.m. on Feb. 8 to respond to a blaze in the 9300 block of Emerald Drive. The RCMP informed the fire department that the home was alleged to be a marijuana grow op.

Melanie Schumacher was the first person to spot the fire. She saw smoke coming from the home after dropping her husband off in the village.

"I went up the driveway to the back of the house and went around the corner and saw that there was a lot of fire," she told Pique on Feb. 8.

After banging on the door of the home and concluding nobody was inside Schumacher called 911 then alerted her neighbours of the fire.

Fire chief Sheila Kirkwood said she would need to replay dispatch tapes to know for sure how long it took to get water from a hydrant, but she estimated it took 20 minutes to get water flowing.

"It's not a factor in the outcome of the fire as the decision to go to a defensive operation was made very early on," said Kirkwood on Feb. 11.

"In fact, I think that (decision) was probably made prior to even finding out that the hydrants were frozen.

"The crews were already in a defensive mode at that point to keep the fire away from the neighbouring houses and the trees. The crews were doing that with water that's available on the apparatus."

Kirkwood said two hydrants on Emerald Drive are now out of service. The two hydrants are going to be completely broken down by the RMOW utilities department as part of the investigation into why they failed.

According to Kirkwood, if there's another emergency in that area fire crews will lay out as much hose as they need to reach the next closest hydrant.

Every piece of fire apparatus in Whistler went to the scene of the fire and more than 30 fire fighters responded to fight the blaze.

When asked if the weekend fire will have any impact on insurance rates, Wilhelm-Morden said it is too early to say.

"There's always the potential of some kind of claim being made," she said. "It will depend on just what the malfunction consisted of. Whether it had something to do with the maintenance or service."

The fire gutted the home on Emerald Drive. The damage was so extensive an excavator brought down the charred remains of the home at the end of the day to ensure the fire didn't reignite.

The total loss of the home prompted Kirkwood to remind absentee landlords to understand what is happening in their Whistler homes.

"What's really going on in there?" she asked rhetorically of homeowners who live outside the community. She added that homeowners are ultimately responsible for what happens on their property.

She was on hand for the final destruction of the home. There was no evidence of any plants in the home but Kirkwood saw things that back the RCMP's belief the home was used to grow marijuana.

"There was growing trays," said Kirkwood. "There were heat shields there, there was venting, there were multiple propane bottles, which the crews had pulled out earlier from the fire."

Staff Sgt. Steve LeClair said the home was investigated when allegations came to the RCMP that the home was being used to produce marijuana several years ago.

"Police investigated it fully, however, we were not able to gain enough grounds to get a search warrant," said LeClair.

The investigation concluded in May of 2009 due to a lack of solid evidence.

LeClair said an excessive amount of potting soil was found in the remains of the house once the fire was extinguished. He described some of the things found in the burned remains as items consistent with marijuana growing operations.

The fire on Emerald Drive followed a less serious blaze the day before on Rainbow Drive. Kirkwood said in that incident a chimney fire spread to the roof of the home.


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