New Westminster Fire and Rescue Services is still working to confirm an abandoned house was empty when it went up in flames early Monday morning.
New Westminster firefighters were called to a fire in a building in the 500 block of Wilson Street about 3 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 18.
“The building had been abandoned since 2018. It caught fire at that time. It was the second fire in building within three years,” Deputy Chief Curtis Bremner said. “The building was abandoned and boarded up since the initial fire.”
Upon arrival, firefighters took a defensive approach to fighting the fire, rather than sending firefighters inside to put it out.
“Upon arrival, it was through every window and the roof by the time we got there,” Bremner said. “It wouldn’t be appropriate to undertake that much risk for little benefit. Immediately became a defensive fire and we quickly contained it and extinguished it.”
Bremner said crews did a “great job” in quickly knocking down the fire and preventing it from spreading to adjacent properties.
Because the house sustained considerable damage from the fire, crews were unable to get inside to confirm no one was in the house at the time of the fire.
“There is always a concern that these abandoned houses have people have taken up residence in the building that we are not aware of. We are always concerned that they are truly not abandoned,” Bremner said. “They are abandoned by the property owner and they are boarded up, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are unoccupied.”
According to Bremner, the property owner stated people had been breaking into the house on a “semi-regular” basis. It’s expected firefighters will be able to get into the building on Tuesday to confirm it was unoccupied.
“We can’t determine that yet because we are unable to get into the building. It is burnt to a condition where we can safely access it,” he told the Record Monday afternoon. “We have directed the property owner to demolish the building, and the building will be removed in a controlled manner under the guidance of the police and fire departments just to make sure that there is no one in the building.”
Bremner said firefighters are generally able to get into buildings and search to sure no one was inside at the time of the fire, but that’s not possible in this case because the structure is so unsafe.
New Westminster fire and police departments will investigate the cause of the fire.
“It is suspicious in nature. It is undetermined as to the origin of this fire,” Bremner said. “It was vacant. All of the utilities had been cut off – the power, the gas, water. There is really no explainable ignition source. It always makes us wonder. It did have problems with people gaining access and entry into the building, despite their (property owner) efforts to secure it. That is a problem with buildings that are boarded up; there are a lot of people going through quite an extraordinary effort to get into these structures.”
Once fire and police officials have confirmed nobody was in the building at the time of the fire, Bremner said demolition of the building will continue.
Bremner said the fire department has concerns about a number of abandoned structures in the city, and reminds property owners they need to ensure the buildings are secure. He said there have been a number of fires in abandoned structures in the last few years.
“You just have to remember, as property owners, it’s your responsibility to ensure they are secured and prevent any people from going into the building. They do present a lot of risk to the city, and particularly our firefighters, and to people who are trying to get access,” he said. “This is winter. It’s cold, and homeless people are trying to stay dry and stay warm. They may go into these buildings to try and salvage materials. You have a responsibility as a homeowner or a property owner to maintain your property so that it doesn’t create a risk to the citizens of New Westminster.”