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Victorian home hit by fire

Former rooming house damaged in blaze that's considered suspicious

An 1885 house in the Brow of the Hill neighbourhood that was damaged by a suspicious fire Tuesday night has been a source of concern for city officials for some time.

A neighbour called 911 after noticing the fire at the home at 214 Ash St. about 10: 30 p.m. on July 12. New Westminster police and fire investigators are now investigating the cause of the suspicious fire.

"It is an unoccupied home," said John Hatch, the fire department's division chief of public safety and fire prevention. "It had been previously used as a rooming house."

A preliminary inspection indicates the fire started near the porch and spread to the second floor, interior walls and roofline. Most of the damage was contained to the front of the house, but there is extensive smoke damage throughout the home.

"The fire crews did an excellent job in keeping the fire to the limited damage that there was," Hatch said.

Many area residents gathered in front of the home as firefighters extinguished the fire. The house is for sale.

"I noticed the smell of smoke beforehand," said a man who lives nearby and saw the fire from his balcony. "You could definitely see flames shooting up. They put it out pretty fast."

New Westminster Police Service spokesperson Gary Weishaar couldn't comment on the suspicious nature of the fire or the possible presence of squatters at the home.

"It may be a criminal investigation and if so, me answering these questions may hamper that investigation," he wrote in an email to The Record.

Some neighbours told The Record that squatters had been seen at the home in recent weeks. No one was permitted to live in the home until it complied with city bylaws.

"The fire department and city bylaw officers have been concerned about the property for some time and had previously issued an order for the house to be vacated because of safety concerns," said Keith Coueffin, the city's manager of licensing and integrated services.

Coueffin said that some of the city's concerns were that the "living conditions were not acceptable" and work had been done to the house that doesn't comply with building regulations. He said the house was home to a number of suites that had been constructed without permits.

According to Coueffin, the city ordered that the house be vacated until it was brought into compliance with all city bylaws. The suites have legal non-conforming status, but they weren't to be occupied until they met city requirements.

"It was to be vacated," he said. "We got a court order that the property be vacated by May 31."

Coueffin said the city had previously insisted the house be vacated until it was brought into compliance.

It had been vacated, he said, but it was later reoccupied around January - in violation of the city's orders under New Westminster's businesses and rental units bylaw.

Asked if the people who lived in the home were squatters, Coueffin said they were occupying the house as tenants. In January, about 11 people were known to be living in the house.

"There were seven units occupied after the building had been ordered to be vacated," he said.

Kim Deighton, a bylaw officer with the city, was conducting weekly inspections of the site to ensure that it had been vacated. She last visited the house on June 9 to see if the May 31 deadline was being adhered to.

"At that point, it was vacant," she said. "On June 9 it was vacant. It took a little while to get everyone completely out."

Deighton said she received a call the day after the fire from someone informing the city about squatters at the site and across the lane.

Julie Schueck, the city's heritage planner, said the house was originally part of the John Hendry House that was located at 733 Queens Ave. It was built in 1885 and designed by well-known architect George Grant.

The house, which was relocated to Ash Street in May 1912, saw an addition added in 1957.

Schueck said that when the house was moved to the site, architect E.J. Boughen adapted the house.

"Boughen was a wonderful architect from this time period who specialized in houses. So the building is associated with two great architects," she said.

Schueck said Hendry was the first timber baron in B.C., owning four planing mills in southern B.C.

"It's beautiful," said neighbour Raven Blackwell about the house. "I used to walk by all the time and admire it."

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