Tow trucks began clearing the area around an unstable fire-damaged crane in Kingston, Ont., Thursday evening, but people living in the evacuation zone still don’t know when they’ll be able to return home.

Kingston burned out car

A burned-out vehicle is towed from the evacuation zone in Kingston where a fire levelled a residential housing complex under construction. (Ryan Gibson/CBC)

Kingston Mayor Mark Gerretsen and fire Chief Rhéaume Chaput held a news conference Thursday afternoon and said the city will be responsible for towing all vehicles out of the area, as well as removing snow and ice from the firefighting efforts to allow for the crane to be dismantled and removed from the scene.

The company in charge of the crane will be responsible for dismantling it, and a plan to do so was expected to be submitted by the end of Thursday. That plan will have to be approved by Ontario's Ministry of Labour.

Until a plan is approved, Kingston police have set up a “red zone” banning the public from a two-block radius around the still-smouldering ruins.

The residential complex at 663 Princess St. was under construction on Tuesday when it became engulfed in flames. Firefighters worked to keep the blaze contained Tuesday before finally getting it under control, but not before some adjacent buildings were damaged.

Chaput said the damage estimate for the fire could be as high as $30 million.

Seniors staying at hotel

Barry Holmes, 79, lived in the Royal Canadian Legion villa next to the construction site on Princess Street. He said he saw a supervisor gathering people to get out of the building on Tuesday.

”You’d just touch your window and it was hot,” he told CBC News Thursday.

“When we came down to our front door and started to walk across the street to the Super 8 lobby, one of our ladies actually got the back of her leg singed, the heat was so intense.”

Holmes and about 50 other people from the villa are being put up at Kingston’s Ambassador Hotel after the Legion building was badly damaged by the fire.

The scene from downtown

The blaze sent flames high into the sky above downtown, prompting many to get out of their vehicles. (Submitted by Brent Lewis)

He said residents have been told it could be months before they’re allowed back.

“In some places their windows imploded. I don’t know if mine have been affected or not, but there would be water damage that would have come down through the roof,” Holmes said.

“I guess in situations where you have no control over it, you just have to roll with the punches.”

Hotel management said it would help the displaced for as long as possible.

“We’re here as a respite for them as long as we can accommodate them,” said hotel general manager and part-owner Vinny Rebelo.

“If they’re here [for Christmas] we’ll make them feel at home.”

Rebelo said he’s had offers from strangers to help pay for accommodation for the villa residents, but he’s told them to donate to the food bank or other emergency services instead.

Dramatic rescue

The fire led to the dramatic airlift of crane operator Adam Jastrezbski by a helicopter rescue team from CFB Trenton.

Jastrezbski’s wife, Helen, said he suffered burns to his hands, back and legs, but his condition is improving.

An official with the Operating Engineers Training Institute of Ontario said it has been working on a crane fire safety protocol for the last two years after noticing a gap in training.