Firefighters still working to extinguish blaze in former Plaza Hotel

Flames continue to flare up in the rubble of the now gutted former Plaza Hotel and Monty’s strip club in downtown Victoria.

Victoria Fire Chief Paul Bruce says firefighters are working to completely extinguish the fire today, using heavy machinery — including excavators with tracks — to move the smouldering debris around, improve air quality in the area and maintain safety and security at the site.

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Walls imploded and floors collapsed overnight as firefighters battled the stubborn blaze. The exterior walls can still be heard this morning popping from the intense heat. There were still flames at 11 a.m. and firefighters can’t yet access all areas of the building.

About 10 firefighters remain at the scene.

“We’re seeing absolute fire flare-up,” said Victoria Fire Battalion Chief Doug Carey. “If they are not hit with water, they become big fires quite quickly. There’s still a lot of fuel there.”

That fuel includes the building’s wood structure and debris in the basement.

“We’ve been extinguishing hot spots from elevated positions from ladder platforms, because the building is unstable and deemed a hazard to everybody. We don’t want to go in or even close to it with a hose,” Carey said.

As each new level of fallen debris piles up inside the remaining exterior walls, fire smoulders beneath until that hotspot bursts into flames, Carey said.

“We’ve had the third and second floors collapse over in the back corner before midnight and parts of the walls on the Pandora Avenue side came down around the same time. It was quite a crash,” Carey said. “The building is slowly imploding on itself while it’s slowly smouldering away. The fire is deeply seated.”

Because the building is not structurally sound, firefighters must continue to douse the hot spots from above using aerial ladders.

Watching the flames continuing to flash this morning, carpenter John Elving said he can’t imagine why Victoria would want to preserve the facade of the more than 100-year-old heritage building.

The city confirmed this morning it wants to preserve the exterior walls of the former Monty’s Showroom and Plaza Hotel.

“That’s ridiculous,” Elving said. “It seems ludicrous to me to try to protect it. It’s spending a whole bunch of money to make a building look old. Put a new building in and make it look beautiful. It looks disgusting. I wish they would take it down quicker.”

No one was believed to be injured in Monday’s blaze, which was first detected in the roof and basement, but Victoria police and fire officials continue today to try to locate the building’s caretaker, Mike Draeger, who was known to stay at the building on occasion.

“We really haven’t confirmed whether he was in the building or whether he was not in the building,” Bruce said Monday.

As of this morning, Draeger has not yet been found as far as Victoria Police Const. Matt Rutherford or Bruce know.

The area around the burned-out building on Government Street between Pandora and Johnson streets and Douglas and Government streets is fenced in and closed to pedestrian and vehicle traffic.

Businesses and public buildings within that area, including Mountain Equipment Co-op and city hall, are closed. The MEC building is directly across from the Government Street wall of the former Plaza Hotel. There remains only an exterior wall of the building’s shell, and firefighters are concerned it could come crashing down. City hall is also concerned for its employees about the quality of the air in that location.

Tom Heemskerk, who lives at 1407 Government, two buildings away, was able to collect some belongings from his condo on Monday night and is asking to return today to collect more dog food. He says his building had some water damage on the bottom floor but that his condo seemed relatively untouched. Heemskerk said he understands the need to be cautious.

“It’s an active fire and they have to investigate to make sure it’s safe,” Heemskerk said. “It’s an inconvenience, but I think I got off pretty easy here.”

Heemskerk said he’s had concerns about living beside an abandoned building. “Any vacant building is a problem, right. It’s not being used. The power’s been off. I don’t know if alarms were up. There’s always issues with that. There’s always worries about that.”

The investigation into the cause of the fire can’t begin until the fire is extinguished.

The vacant heritage building was due for an inspection this week after a recent suspicious fire.

The cause of any blaze is deemed suspicious until determined otherwise, said Bruce, who noted that the fire accelerated quickly, even for a wooden structure with a lot of “highly combustible” debris in the basement, where it was first detected.

“The fact is it was quite a significant fire to evolve that quickly, [which] certainly leads us to think that, you know, there could be some assistance,” Bruce said.

“Until we can get a chance to possibly look inside of the building and make some other determinations, it’s hard for me to suspect or comment on what the cause may be.”

The former strip club closed in January 2013 and the derelict hotel was bought by West Vancouver-based Ocean Gate Developments in August 2016. It had been the subject of a redevelopment application.

A suspicious fire in an exterior stairwell of the former pub and hotel two weeks ago prompted an examination of the building’s fire alarm and security systems on April 26. The Victoria Fire Department requested a more thorough review of the alarm system with the owner’s representative, and that had been scheduled for Wednesday, Bruce said.

At the peak of Monday’s blaze, about 34 Victoria firefighters, three aerial trucks and three engine trucks were fighting the fire.

When the blaze broke out, no alarms came from within the former pub and hotel, said the fire chief. Instead, fire alarms sounded in the adjacent Royal Victoria Suites at 1413 Government St. at 5:18 a.m., sending tourists into the streets in their socks and pyjamas.

The fire department was first alerted by Price’s Alarms.

Firefighters initially entered the “fully involved” building and made it to the third-floor stairwell, but immediately withdrew after realizing the fire was coming from the basement and was too dangerous.

“The halls were very full of black smoke,” Bruce said. “The basement was fully involved. Our immediate concern is to get our members out as soon as possible.”

Victoria Deputy Chief Dan Atkinson said numerous renovations to the building over the years, which changed the floor plan, added to the dangers for firefighters within the building.

To prevent the fire from spreading to adjacent buildings, firefighters pumped out a steady blast of water into the afternoon on Monday — up to 4,000 gallons a minute at peak periods — from several hoses on all sides and from atop the more than 100-year-old building at 603 Pandora Ave.

A drone surveyed the status of the fire from above.

Windows popped and shattered, and at about 8:30 a.m., the brick facade on the Pandora Avenue side of the building came crashing down. Part of the exterior wall imploded. The roof’s decorative wood was eaten by flames. Amid thick smoke, some onlookers wore masks and stayed to watch what they believed would be the building’s eventual collapse.

Smoke plumes could be seen from throughout the region, as well as from Washington state.

Given the scope of the fire, the wood structure and the amount of debris in the basement, Atkinson said it was not surprising that it burned for so long. The focus was preventing the fire from spreading south to adjacent buildings, he said. The roof of 1411 Government St. suffered minor fire and smoke damage.

Bruce said the fire was under control by noon, although firefighters continued to battle small fires and hot spots. The basement extends beneath the club and hotel and outward underneath the sidewalks on Pandora Avenue and Government Street.

Janet Broadbent was about to drive her car from a parking lot behind the burning building when debris, including gravel being blown off the roof of the building by fire hoses, rained down on her car, shattering the glass in the sunroof, said her husband, David. She was in the vehicle at the time but unharmed, he said.

Jim Ibea and wife, Tieca Ibea, from Seattle, and daughter Tianna Ibea and her boyfriend, Zach York, from Wisconsin, were staying at the neighbouring Royal Victoria Suites vacation rental when they woke up to a fire alarm at about 5:20 a.m. Monday.

While leaving the third-floor suite, the group held their breath through the smoke on the main floor. They stood outside in their socks and pyjamas until Victoria resident Terry Bell showed up with used shoes for them.

York was haunted by the fact that the first thing he noticed when they entered the vacation rental on Sunday was the lack of a fire escape or alternate fire exit. The family had to rationalize their concern thinking “what are the odds.” Thankfully they escaped safely and the fire never reached their building.

Wendy Hedley, from Winnipeg, watched the fire wrapped in a blanket from the fire department and wearing shoes given to her by a stranger. In Victoria to visit her daughter and grandchild, she was staying in an Airbnb on Johnson Street when the fire alarm rang out.

William Aolenehuk, 62, who was watching firefighters tackle the blaze, said the “ladies used to dress up to the nines” when the building housed the disco-era DecaDance. Of late, however, the basement, where he did pest control for rats and mice, was piled high with stored items and junk, he said.

Frank and Gail Wilms of Comox, came to Victoria for their 21st wedding anniversary, and were well prepared with clothes and identification at the ready when the fire alarm sounded — but Gail forgot her glasses.

Wilms said he and his wife — and other guests — were led by firefighters back into their vacation rental to retrieve their belongings at about 1 p.m., more than seven hours after the fire broke out. Wilms said he parked the couple’s car on Pandora Avenue and returned to a $44 parking ticket. “I just wanted to get out of there”, he said, of driving straight home to Comox.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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