Hours-long efforts by firefighters around the St. Albert region helped save as much of the Citadel seniors complex as possible last week after a massive fire engulfed the west wing.
Acting St. Albert Fire Chief Scott Wilde told reporters Friday the fire caused extensive damage to the 110-unit seniors home. While the investigation into the fire is ongoing, he estimated around half the units will have significant fire damage, while others will have significant water damage. No one died in the fire, though three people were taken to hospital.
Wilde credited getting the fire under control to the co-ordinated response of fire departments in the region that came to St. Albert’s aid, including Morinville, Spruce Grove, Strathcona County and Edmonton. This regional collaboration was facilitated under the Capital Region Emergency Preparedness Partnership mutual aid agreement.
“We were able to co-ordinate a very efficient attack on what needed to be done,” Wilde said.
Neighbours helping neighbours
Morinville Fire Chief Brad Boddez said his department sent 12 members and two fire trucks to help around 9 p.m. last Thursday. The fire was in full force when they arrived, and firefighters knew they were in it for the "long haul."
"In something as large as this, it's always nice to be able to lean on our regional partners and utilize some of the resources that they have. A single department can't always do it on its own," Boddez said.
Six years ago, Morinville had a large fire engulf a condominium complex that they needed assistance to control. St. Albert and Leduc sent crews to help back then, and Boddez said Morinville was happy to help St. Albert now.
Edmonton Fire Chief Joe Zatylny said his department sent 26 firefighters to help battle the blaze, with six crews and fire trucks arriving at 8:27 p.m. on Thursday.
"Last night was one of those great opportunities of the importance of partnership, especially when it comes to emergencies of that size," Zatylny said Friday. Edmonton crews were able to work closely with the St. Albert firefighters to communicate, strategize and execute tactical plans to be able to mitigate the fire and stop it from spreading, he said.
"The fire was tough. I do have to say hats off to the St. Albert firefighters for their hard work. We were very grateful that there were no injuries out of 100 or so
Zatylny also noted the importance of getting an emergency kit together with essentials to last up to 72 hours. Packing items like cash, ready-to-eat foods, bottled water, flashlights and a first aid kit can come in handy when you have to leave a dangerous situation immediately.
Strathcona County Fire Chief Jeff Hutton said his department sent one crew with a fire truck and a technical rescue member to assist in the response. The next morning, Strathcona sent three mobility buses to help transport seniors who were displaced.
"That's the essence of mutual aid. It often revolves around fire but other municipal services as well – neighbours helping neighbours, doing whatever we can to assist," he said.
"In the past, when we've lost members, we've staffed stations so that people could attend funerals. So we've done that for St. Albert, and St. Albert has done that for us."
While crews were focused on battling the fire, fire department services were also needed elsewhere in St. Albert that night. After responding at the scene, Spruce Grove Fire Chief Robert Kosterman said the department sent four firefighters and a duty chief to help with calls elsewhere. They responded to one fire alarm and two medical calls that night.
"That's what's important, is that we all work together and come to each other's aid in times of need," Kosterman said.
Fighting the fire
When the additional trucks arrived, Wilde said everyone already knew where the water was needed.
Firewalls are incorporated into multi-unit buildings to ensure a fire does not spread to the entire building. Instead, the fire will come up against the wall that's been constructed to stop the flames in its tracks, Wilde explained. Keeping that wall secure became the primary focus of crews once they arrived on scene.
“We had all the water that we could find, every truck that we have, to stop it at that spot,” Wilde said. “We knew that the rest of the building would suffer additional losses, but at the same time, we believe that we could have prevented the rest of the building (from catching fire).”
The west wing is part of a three-building complex. The centre building, connected to the west wing by a pedway, is the long-term care facility Citadel Care Centre. Citadel Mews East, a detached independent-living building, was not evacuated.
Once the firewall was held, crews were able to start backing up to where the fire was actually burning to keep it under control. The fire was extinguished early Friday morning, with crews staying on scene to take care of any remaining hot spots.
When asked about the challenges, Wilde said evacuating residents was difficult because many needed assistance getting out of the building or were dealing with medical conditions. Once they were out of the building, residents were then relocated to the St. Albert Inn by bus, with most put up in hotel rooms and others placed in available beds at long-term care facilities in the region.