Downtown monuments to fire

Burned homes still standing more than a year after suspicious blaze

An apartment building 22355 McIntosh Ave. in the downtown core was ravaged by fire in December 2012. Plans for it remain uncertain.

An apartment building 22355 McIntosh Ave. in the downtown core was ravaged by fire in December 2012. Plans for it remain uncertain.

The fire struck in April 2013, at the entrance to downtown Maple Ridge, gutting two old homes on Lougheed Highway and 222nd Street, leaving them a charred mess on the main road. Weeds grew and the roofs sagged as the months rolled by, and a year passed.

It took until a demolition order on Feb. 17 of this year for the wheels of municipal bureaucracy to lurch into motion.

Now, after council gave the property owner a month’s notice, the homes can be torn down, once hazardous materials have been removed.

In a few weeks, bulldozers are to move in and clear the debris, removing an eyesore at the entrance of downtown.

“We were under the impression that they were going to do certain things and that didn’t happen,” said Maple Ridge Mayor Ernie Daykin of why it took so long.

Building inspections done April 26 and June 6 last year declared the buildings unsafe. Staff say the conditions inside were so bad, firefighters couldn’t enter the building if it caught fire, even if someone was inside.

One of the houses, at 22043 Lougheed Hwy., contained a marijuana grow-operation, while the other, at 22033 Lougheed Hwy., was vacant.

Disputes between creditors, strata ownership and insurance companies can delay decisions about buildings.

“Maybe we need to evaluate what our current processes are,” Daykin said. “I don’t have any difficulty with taking a look at how we do things and if we can tighten it up somehow.”

But there probably isn’t just one way to remove a run-down building.

“It’s not like we’re not paying attention or we don’t want it to happen quicker.”

Yet, a larger eyesore has dominated McIntosh Avenue in the downtown since a Dec. 12, 2012 fire.

It looms over the downtown streetscape with empty, smashed windows looking over the streets, resembling the vacant eyes of a 222nd Street crack-cocaine addict.

Daykin said the building owners are still negotiating with insurance companies to allow possible repair of the structure.

The mayor wants to inquire with the insurance industry to see what the normal processing times are for claims.

“I’m going to try to find out a little bit more on that. If you have a major fire, what is the expectation for that to get turned around.”

Daykin noted that the building is secure and people aren’t sneaking into it or squatting there.

He wonders where the renters went who were living there?

“The human toll. Maybe they found other places to live.”

But the building isn’t a write off.

The fire started in the top floor of the building Dec. 12, 2012, leaving about 30 people homeless. A large clone lab with 1,200 small marijuana plants was found on the third floor, but it wasn’t the cause of the fire.

Maple Ridge Coun. Cheryl Ashlie has raised the topic of old buildings previously, asking why it took so long to demolish the old gym on 224th Street. She hasn’t had an answer. Compared to other cities, she said, it seems to take longer to get a building torn down in Maple Ridge.

In Pitt Meadows, a building tear down takes place within six months of a blaze or the time it’s declared a wreck.

In Maple Ridge, it takes twice as long.

“I just kind of keep making a nuisance of myself,” said Pitt Meadows bylaw enforcement officer Lesley Elchuk.

“When I get delays, I just keep bothering them. You just have to keep on them all the time.”

With bylaws enforcement triggered by complaints, Elchuk can make a case to council, seeking that the building be either fixed up or torn down.

Once council votes to do that, the property owner has a month to comply before the municipality hires a contractor, tears down the house and bills the services on next year’s taxes.

But if a building isn’t drawing complaints, the process drags on, such as for two burnt-out homes on Lougheed Highway in Pitt Meadows.

The houses are still standing, a year and a half after the fire. No one has complained.

Elchuk, whose bylaw staff consist of 1.5 employees, said she contacts the owners of nuisance buildings and explains the process and gives them options. But many times they delay or can’t decide what to do.

Meanwhile, buildings deteriorate, so Elchuk has to ensure they stay boarded up.

She’ll only accept stalling for a while.

If nothing happens, a report is sent to council within five months, followed another month’s notice to the owner before demolition occurs.

In Maple Ridge, it takes a little longer.