British Columbia

Fatal fire started in or near Christmas lights, inquest told

A faulty extension cord attached to Christmas tree lights started a fire that killed three men in East Vancouver just before last Christmas, coroner's inquest has been told.
The rear of the Pandora Street house was badly damaged by the fire, which quickly spread through the building, Vancouver fire officials say.

A faulty extension cord attached to Christmas tree lights started a fire that killed three men in East Vancouver just before last Christmas, coroner's inquest has been told.

Fire Capt. Ray Bryant said the home's wiring system was not directly at fault, and that the fire started near the middle of a room where LED lights on a plastic tree were plugged into an extension cord.

The  fire spread quickly, destroying the Pandora Street building's main floor, Bryant said.

Three men — Garland McKay, Dwayne Rasmussen and Stephen Yellowquill — died of smoke inhalation in the fire on Dec. 22, 2010.

Harry Kayes, one of seven people living in the home at the time of the fire, told the inquest on Monday that he was just returning home when he heard a popping sound and smoke began filling the house.

Kayes and another roommate managed to escape.

Kayes testified he rented a room in the house for $400 a month. There were always plumbing and electrical problems, he said, but the repairs were never made so eventually he stopped complaining to the landlord.

No smoke detectors

Kayes said there were no smoke detectors, alarms or fire extinguishers in the home.

"You know, it's always like that, it always takes somebody to die before somebody does something about it," Kayes said outside the hearing room.

Yellowquill's mother, Daisy Lavalee, said she tried to get her son to move out of the house.

"They should be treated like human beings, not like animals. I didn't like to see my son live like that because I did not raise him like that."

Lavalee said she believed the city bears some responsibility for the fire because it did not force the landlord to make crucial repairs.

"They were too lenient on her," she said. "My son is gone, and his friends."

Barry Morris, a United Church Minister, says he is watching the inquest closely.

Morris knew the fire victims through his work in the community and said he hopes to find out how well city inspectors monitored the rooming house.

"What kind of interests might have been at stake that might have handcuffed or limited ... the inspectors, for example."

The home had been a problem for the city — Vancouver firefighters responded 21 times between May 2007 and December 2010 to calls from or about the home.

Inspectors noted the home had no smoke detectors and was operating illegally as a rooming house.

Former manager to testify

Morris said he has no evidence inspectors did anything but their best, but wonders if they may have been reluctant to pursue the issue.

"They might feel if we push too hard, and the landlords not complying, then this house might close down and we'll have egg on our face around taking one of the few houses in that area that has rented to people who are hard to rent to," he said.

Vancouver's manager of property inspections, Carlene Robbins, left her job after the fire, and is suing the city for the way she was treated in the aftermath of the deadly blaze.

Robbins is scheduled to testify at the hearing Tuesday.

The owner of the house will also appear at the inquest.

With files from the CBC's Terry Donnelly and Lisa Johnson

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