Firefighters battle Sunday's blaze at Five Corners from above.

‘Extraordinary’ blaze tapped White Rock’s water system

White Rock leaders stand by city-owned water supply in wake of massive fire

Sunday’s fire at Five Corners – which left more than 100 White Rock residents homeless – was “unprecedented,” according to city officials.

City leaders also say the water shortage and nearly three-day boil-water advisory that resulted from the weekend blaze are not cause for concern, nor indicative of an infrastructure unable to handle such an incident.

“We would have been able to handle a normal fire, but this was an extraordinary event,” city manager Dan Bottrill told Peace Arch News Wednesday. “We were using upwards of 400 litres per second over a sustained period of time – six hours. Our system is built for more like 212 litres per second, for a peak period of about 2.6 hours.”

Within a few hours of crews fighting the massive blaze at Johnston Road and Pacific Avenue – efforts were aided by seven Surrey Fire Services trucks – water pressure began to drop throughout the city. The city tapped into Surrey’s water supply by way of two connections on 16 Avenue – which Bottrill said are equipped for “emergency firefighting purposes” only, not day-to-day water supply – which prompted questions in the community about White Rock’s capacity to fight such a blaze.

Mayor Wayne Baldwin said the city has “way more” than the water capacity required under engineering standards for a city of White Rock’s size, noting that an additional 1.7-million-litre reservoir is under construction at the Oxford Street site, expected to be in operation “in six months or so.”

Baldwin also described the fire – which started around 4:30 a.m. at an adjacent under-construction condominium complex and quickly spread to the 64-unit residential and commercial building at 15120 Pacific Ave. – as “extraordinary.”

“We had two buildings simultaneously going up, and that is unheard of,” he said. “All things considered, I think we came through that with flying colours in the system. The system worked.”

Fire Chief Phil Lemire agreed that crews used an “unprecedented” amount of water fighting the blaze – which he said was due to the size of the two buildings involved – and that White Rock’s receding water levels did not present a concern to him.

“We were able to direct our water flows where they were needed,” Lemire said. “It didn’t hamper our efforts as far as being able to put the fire out. We were just more strategic with how we were applying it.”

The depleted water levels also prompted the city to issue a boil-water advisory, noting the low reserves could create negative pressure in the water lines and bring contaminants into the system.

The advisory was in place until late Wednesday morning, following two rounds of laboratory tests that showed no sign of bacterial contamination.

Baldwin emphasized Wednesday that the move was an “advisory, not an order, which is a different level of concern,” noting it was “purely precautionary,” on the city’s part.

“I never thought that there was any (contamination), we didn’t have any. I never bothered boiling my water,” Baldwin said.

The city rented electronic signs for major intersections to inform people of the advisory, called various media (PAN was contacted at noon), posted a bulletin online, issued a news release Sunday evening and enlisted the help of the White Rock Business Improvement Association and South Surrey & White Rock Chamber of Commerce to get the word out to business owners.

“Beyond that, there’s not a heck of a lot we could do other than go door-to-door knocking and telling people, and that’s not practical,” Baldwin said. “Had the risk been greater, we would have gone to much more extraordinary steps.”

The cause of Sunday’s fire is still under investigation, Lemire said, noting crews are still working to ensure the construction site is safe for investigators.

Lemire said the fourth floor of the Ocean Ridge condo complex sustained heavy damage, including a collapsed roof, and the exterior south side of the building, facing the construction site, was also badly burned.

The rest of the building sustained water and smoke damage, and fire crews were able to enter suites over the past two days to retrieve small belongings for evacuees.

The dozen ground-level businesses in the building were spared from the fire, but sustained water damage. The building’s insurance adjustor and restoration crews are in the process of determining whether the building can be repaired, or will need to be torn down.

Aside from a man in his 70s who tripped over a fire house and broke his leg, Lemire said he was unaware of any other injuries, something he attributes to the quick evacuation response of residents.

“I applaud the efforts of the residents that they responded to the alarm and took action,” Lemire said.

According to Baldwin, the evacuees – who have been told it will be one to two years before they are able to return home – are in good spirits and are “so grateful” for the outpouring of support from the community.

DonationsSeveral online fundraisers have been launched to raise money for the victims, donations of clothes and toiletries have been collected and free counselling services are being offered by Sources Community Resource Centres.

Local businesses are holding fundraisers or donating goods in support of those left homeless, and The Wooden Spoon hosted a free private dinner Tuesday night for the victims, with support from Penguin Meats, Seaside Market, Gordon Food Service and White Rock Beach Beer Company.

Wednesday, volunteers were busy at First United Church sorting clothing donations that arrived following an appeal issued by Vanilla Clothing owner Deanna Corea, whose business was among those impacted by the fire.

Store manager Judy Portman said the residents suffered a far greater loss.

“What we’ve lost is a business. What these people have lost is everything that they own,” Portman said.

Rev. Louise Cummings described it as “neighbours helping neighbours.” She noted that clothing is no longer being accepted, and encouraged those wanting to donate to do so financially through Sources or other fundraisers.

“The community has really shown its true colours and rallied around the evacuees, and they’re very appreciative,” Baldwin said. “It’s pretty darn impressive.”

– with files from Tracy Holmes

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