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House fire raises concerns over illegal living areas

Two of four houses affected contained unsafe spaces

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Unsafe, illegal living spaces in two of the four homes affected by the Aug. 11 house fire on Spruce Grove Circle are once again raising concerns about non-conforming space in Whistler.

In one of the houses, a bedroom was created in a crawl space, resulting in third-degree burns for the man sleeping inside because he was unable to easily escape.

Whistler Fire Chief Sheila Kirkwood said that anything being used as a bedroom must have a window leading outside.

"You choose the door first, and if you can't get out that way, because of the smoke or flames, then you've got the window as your second option. That wasn't the case in this house," Kirkwood said.

In another house, two bedrooms were created off of an exterior balcony.

"Again, they didn't have secondary egress, (and) there were no secondary smoke detectors," Kirkwood said.

On Aug. 14, officials completed their investigation into the house fire, determining it originated on the southwest exterior of the house at 7253 Spruce Grove Circle. The cause of the fire will remain undetermined due to a lack of physical evidence.

While reports of the kind of illegal construction found inside some of the houses have gone down in recent years, Kirkwood said it's still very common to see — typically in attics or garages.

"We've (also) seen laundry rooms, mechanical rooms that are being turned into bedrooms, and they don't meet the building or fire codes in any way, shape or form," Kirkwood said.

It's a difficult standard for Whistler Fire Services to enforce.

"We don't go knocking on residential doors looking for it," Kirkwood said, which means maintaining conforming living spaces falls on the shoulders of the landlords and tenants of Whistler.

"If anybody is concerned that they are living in a place that doesn't meet the basic safety requirements, call the fire department," Kirkwood said. "We will come out and do an inspection, and ensure that any deficiencies get corrected."

Following an inspection, building owners have 30 days to bring their property back into compliance with the building code.

Failing that, the homeowner could be charged $500 every day until the problem is corrected.

While renovations and potential fines can be expensive, the alternative is much worse, Kirkwood said.

"To me, the greater cost is the emergency incident, where somebody doesn't escape and we have a fire death," she said.

The issue of non-conforming living spaces is nothing new in the corridor, said Chris Addario, president of the Sea to Sky branch of the Canadian Home Builders Association (CHBA).

"One of the reasons why the (CHBA) in the Sea to Sky corridor was formed was to deal with this as a group," Addario said.

In past years the CHBA has worked with the municipality to address the issue, including forming a task force with a number of invested parties working towards finding a solution.

In the years following the 2010 Olympics the problem seemed to lessen, "but I think that the crunch is kind of on again," Addario said.

"We're getting to a point where all the rental stock and the housing stock that we built through the Olympics... that's now full, and we're getting to a point again where it gets challenging for people to find a place to live."

Meanwhile, those affected by last week's fire are finding the outpouring of support from Whistlerites overwhelming.

"It feels like a miracle that the people are so helpful," said Rebecca McCaffrey, who, along with her three children, lost everything in the fire. "I really want to thank the people of Whistler for that."

The outpouring has been so great, in fact, that the family can't accept any more material donations.

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