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Whistler rallies with help in aftermath of large condo fire

Residents in 21-unit complex displaced after devastating blaze; future of building unclear



Ashley Langlois and her boyfriend had finally found a place in Whistler for the season, only to watch it go up in smoke and flames six weeks after moving in, when Alpine House erupted into flames on Nov. 10.

It took 67 emails, endless disappointment and worry, and the very real possibility of living in their car before finally, in October, they found a two-bedroom unit at the Alpine townhouse complex.

"We just moved in," said Langlois, despair flitting across her face as she stood on the road watching fire crews battle smoke and flames engulfing the old Whistler condo complex, located at the corner of Alpine Way and Highway 99. "We just found this place, finally. It took us forever to find this place.

"There's nowhere right now. We were so happy about it."

On Tuesday at around 10:30 a.m., a fire began in one of the back units in the complex, close to Rainbow Drive; it is one of the original condo buildings in Alpine, likely built in the late '70s.

The fire quickly spread to several units.

"It was into the roof system when the first truck arrived and that, of course, remained the problem for us in the afternoon and into the evening," said Fire Chief Geoff Playfair, who had not carried out an investigation as of press time.

He made the decision to call in a heavy excavator as darkness was falling to pull off the roof and allow crews to access the burning fire.

Most of the damage is on the west side of the building, but units on the east side, closer to the highway, are impacted too. Playfair is not sure to what extent.

"The building is split in two halves with a fire separation between those two," he said. "So we were able to hold it on one side of that separation, so from that perspective, the construction did its job."

Within the first hour the fire was in the attic of the units. Fire crews continually doused the roof with water in an effort to keep it under control and contain the blaze.

Thick pungent smoke blanketed the neighbourhood as residents looked on in disbelief.

No one was injured but all 21 units were evacuated.

"When we all came out to see it, it was already a raging fire, up into the sky, through both floors," said Langlois, thankful her landlord insisted on renters insurance before giving them the keys, the first time she's ever had it.

"It was like a big box of matches."

Resident Maury Power was at home in unit 15 with his wife and two young daughters when the fire broke out.

A girl knocked on his door and said there was a fire on the deck two doors down. He grabbed his small fire extinguisher and rushed to help.

"The whole deck was on fire," he said, standing outside the Alpine Café an hour after the fire broke out. "I put one wall out and then I couldn't get the rest of it out."

He has a message to everyone: Get three or four extinguishers and have them on hand.

"If I would have had them, this would be out. Now a whole building is burning down."

His wife Janet Power said she could not believe how quickly it spread.

When she heard the cries about a fire on the deck, there was no major panic.

"By the time we got out, it was completely up in flames," she said.

"I just can't get over how fast it happened.

"I'm just grateful everyone got out in time."

Pepe Barajas, owner of The Mexican Corner and La Cantina, rushed to the scene as soon as he heard. He rents a three-bedroom unit at Alpine House and six of his employees live there.

His first concern was the safety of his employees.

"Then you start to realize all the implications after that," he said.

His staff is now homeless, and who knows for how long.

"Now I have to figure out accommodation for them for the rest of the season," he said.

"This is a complex purely for locals and the workforce. This is going hurt them badly and some of the businesses as well."

Emergency Social Services (ESS) has set up a reception centre at Meadow Park Sports Centre.

Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, who was onsite early on as the fire crews worked to contain the fire, said there was asbestos in the building due to its age.

"I think that's one of the reasons why (firefighters) were trying to keep onlookers back and out of the smoke," she said later. "It was particularly dirty smoke."

Her thoughts, however, remain with those most affected, now displaced, without a place to live and no indication at this time of what the future may hold.

"There's no good time to be homeless, but in November it's going to be a challenge," she said."Hopefully, people will step up and make accommodation available."

As darkness fell on Tuesday night, the thick smoke still clung to the neighbourhood and firefighters continued their work, as offers for help poured out across social media. Geoff Carr, who runs the nearby Alpine Lodge, opened his hostel for those in need as they stood watching the fire.

He's been in the same situation he said after a fire gutted the lodge in 1997.

"It was pretty traumatic for everyone involved," he said. "I feel really bad for the people."

Barajas stopped in at the Alpine Lodge to take up Carr's offer of help.

"One of the interesting things about Whistler, it's just like a very big family," said Barajas, who comes from Mexico City and has lived in other big cities like Toronto. "The community is always willing to help, so I am sure everyone will come together and will help the people who were affected."

Residents can drop off clothing donations to the Re-Use-It Centre where it will be passed on to ESS.