A fire that ripped through the top floor of an apartment building in Maple Ridge on Thursday, leaving dozens of people homeless before Christmas, started in a unit next to one with a large marijuana grow operation.
The blaze started in a suite on the third floor of the building at 22355 McIntosh Ave. around 11 p.m.
Most of the people who lived in the wood-frame building got out safely, but an elderly couple had to be rescued by ladder from a third floor balcony after hallways filled with smoke and flames shot through the roof.
A dog was trapped inside the apartment where the fire started, but escaped when firefighters opened the front door.
Firefighters led other tenants, disoriented by smoke, outside.
Eva Lindgren was asleep in her suite on the third floor, but was woken up by her son, who was alerted to the blaze down the hall after smoke alarms sounded.
“He yelled, ‘mom you’ve got to get up,’” said Lindgren, who ran outside dressed only in a coat as thick black smoke billowed out of the building.
Nineteen of 30 tenants were housed in a hotel over the weekend, while others are bunking with friends and family.
Lindgren and her sister Janice remain worried about where they are going to live once their three-day allowance for food, clothing and shelter runs out.
“Everything in the apartment is gone,” said Lindgren, whose sister is an epileptic.
“I just bought all my Christmas presents.”
Crews remained on scene overnight and had to extinguished a flare-up Friday morning.
“It had huge potential for loss of life. It was a very serious fire,” said fire chief Peter Grootendorst.
The “stubborn” fire made its way through the ceiling into the attic space of the building, that is estimated to be 40 years old.
Firefighters had to pull down the ceilings of every suite on the top floor to attack the fire. The roof had eight layers of tar on it.
“It was a very time-consuming and very difficult job,” said Grootendorst.
As crews rushed from suite to suite, they discovered a large clone lab with 1,200 small marijuana plants on the third floor.
People were also growing marijuana in closets in two other apartments on the same floor.
The fire did not start in any of the suites that were being used to grow marijuana.
Grootendorst was shocked to find evidence of three grow-ops in close proximity to each other in a multi-storey building, filled with people.
“They don’t belong there. It’s just not safe,” he added, pointing to the high-intensity lights, the heat, the mildew and mold associated with do-it-yourself grow ops.
Grootendorst said the man who lived in the suite where the fire started has no idea what caused it, but the fire department suspects it may have been electrical.
Police seized the pot plants, but are not pursuing charges.
Kary Movers were hired to help move and store what remains of the tenants’ possessions. Nothing could be saved from the third floor.
James Cousineau, with the moving company, said it was sad to go into suites and see the charred remains of Christmas decorations.
In one suite, there were still Christmas cookies on trays and baking supplies on the counter because the tenant was in the middle of baking treats for the holidays when the fire started.
Kary Movers worked through the weekend to move stuff from the building to a warehouse in Surrey.
The District of Maple Ridge and province’s emergency services covered the costs of the move for residents as only two units had fire insurance.
“Everyone stepped up at this special time of year to do everything they could to help these people in a time of need,” he added.
The apartment building is owned by Cameron Court Apartment Inc., an Abbotsford-based company registered to Parmjit Kaur Sandhu.
Sandhu doesn’t know how the fire started and only heard about the grow operations in her building through media reports.
“I wasn’t personally told anything about that and I had no idea about that.
We are still in the stages of finding out everything ourselves,” she added.
This isn’t the first time a marijuana grow op has been discovered in one of Sandhu’s properties.
A house she owns on Richardson Road in Pitt Meadows was raided once in 2009 after a grow op was discovered, but tenants eventually obtained a license from Health Canada to grow medical marijuana there.
She also owned a gym on 224th Street in Maple Ridge that was demolished after an illegal growop was found inside.
Sandhu has returned rent money for December to tenant and their damage deposits, and is also helping them to find other places to live.
“Our prayers are with them and they are our main focus,” she said.
• If you are a resident of the building and need more information on your belongings, contact Kary Movers Ltd. at 604-506-6182.
• People who want to help are encouraged to make a financial donation to the Canadian Red Cross by calling 604-709-6600 or mailing a cheque to the Lower Mainland Red Cross office at 3400 Lake City Way, Burnaby, B.C., V5A 4Y2. Please make your cheque payable to “The Canadian Red Cross” and earmark it to “B.C. Response Fund—Maple Ridge Fire.” The Canadian Red Cross Health Equipment Loan location in Maple Ridge at 5 – 11435 201A St, will also be accepting donations during their operating hours—Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 12:30 to 4 p.m