British Columbia

Apartment fire forces 10 Syrian refugee families from their Coquitlam homes

A fire at a housing complex at 550 Cottonwood Ave. in Coquitlam, B.C., has forced 10 Syrian refugee families out of their homes, and left many more without power.

12 units destroyed, 36 without power in a building inhabited mostly by refugees

A total of 86 residents have been displaced by the fire at a complex in Coquitlam, B.C., the city says. (Shane MacKichan)

A fire at a housing complex in Coquitlam, B.C., has forced a dozen families from their homes — 10 of which are Syrian refugees.

The fire began at Building 21 of a housing complex at 550 Cottonwood Ave., which Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart said had the highest concentration of refugee tenants on the complex.

"So many of them had lost everything already prior to coming to Canada," Stewart said.

"These families have been through hell."

Rasheed Shirzad lives in the building adjacent to the one that caught fire. He said that when he arrived at the building at 11:30 a.m., he saw flames the height of building itself emerging from the roof.

"I was terrified," Shirzad said. "It was the first time I saw such a fire."

Stewart said the building contains 48 units in total, the majority of which are inhabited by Syrian refugees. He said the 12 units directly affected by the fire are uninhabitable, and the remaining 36 are without power and will likely be inaccessible for several days.

The City of Coquitlam said, altogether, 86 residents have been displaced. 

Shadi al-Radi also lives in the building next door; his brother lives in the building that caught fire. He said the refugee families forced to flee each have at least three children. 

The cause of the fire has not yet been determined, said Coquitlam assistant fire chief Stu Aspinall, but that it may be connected to contractors who were working in the building.

Aspinall said the only injury reported in the fire was to one of the contractors, who sustained minor burns to his hands.

Housing situation already tough

Stewart said the fire has made a tough housing situation worse. The building was slated for demolition in January 2017, and the developer had been providing the units to the refugees at below-market rates.

"The parents, the fathers, are standing, dazed, watching what was essentially a temporary home for them anyway now lost," Stewart said.

Stewart said the city's emergency social services program will cover hotel stays for the families for the next few nights, but he said it will be challenging to find a more long-term solution.

"We were already hard-pressed to identify housing for these refugees."

City officials are instructing residents of the building to go to a reception centre at the Dogwood Pavilion at 1655 Winslow Ave.

Aspinall said firefighters from neighbouring Burnaby were called in to assist in containing the Cottonwood Avenue blaze, as Coquitlam crews were battling an additional house fire on Wickham Drive at the same time. Coquitlam Fire and Rescue initially reported the Wickham Drive fire as two separate fires.

The Wickham Drive fire was called in about an hour after crews responded to the Cottonwood Avenue fire. Coquitlam fire Chief Wade Pierlot said two pets and all human residents of the house were accounted for, but a dog belonging to one of the residents perished in the fire.

Governments respond

On Saturday, the province issued a release saying several provincial, municipal, and federal organizations are working together to help find housing for those affected. 

The organizations are also working on finding clothing, prescription medications and other essentials. 

Fraser Health is also monitoring the situation.