British Columbia

Man missing after fire in vacant hotel in Victoria, police ask for help finding him

A fire at the old Plaza Hotel in downtown Victoria has left a cloud of smoke over the city. The city's fire chief says a caretaker, Mike Draeger, who would sometimes stay in the building has not yet been accounted for.

Fire chief says fire 'could be' suspicious

Dozens of passersby stopped to stare at the fire early Monday. The old Victoria Plaza Hotel building, which has been vacant for years, burned for hours after flames were spotted in the basement. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

One man is unaccounted for after a fire at a shuttered hotel in downtown Victoria.

Firefighters have been blasting the old Victoria Plaza Hotel on Pandora Avenue at Government Street with water since they arrived at the building just after 5:30 a.m.

Part of one wall collapsed around 10 a.m. and the building's stability is still uncertain.

Victoria fire Chief Paul Bruce, speaking to reporters early Monday afternoon, said the building's caretaker, Mike Draeger, has not been found.

There were no indications he was in the building at the time, Bruce added, but he was known to sometimes stay in the building. 

Police would like to hear from anyone who might know Draeger's whereabouts. 

"We have no idea and I'd hate to speculate on anything like that," Bruce said when asked about the caretaker. "I would assume that they're actively looking to track him down right now."

Roads are closed, nearby buildings have been evacuated, and city hall has shut down for the rest of the day as well.

Bruce said the fire is still active.

Smoke seen for great distance

A tower of smoke billowing from the four-storey building blanketed the downtown core throughout the day and created created a cloud visible from as far as Port Angeles, Wash., across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. 

A commanding firefighter said it's one of the largest fires he's seen in the city in recent memory.

"It's been a few years," said deputy fire Chief Dan Atkinson, asked about the last time the city saw a fire so large. "This is a significant fire, for sure."

The fire department said more than two dozen firefighters were on scene battling the flames on Monday. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

At its peak, 34 firefighters were on scene trying to get the fire under control from the street and ladders well above the roof. Atkinson said some nearby businesses have smoke and water damage, but flames haven't spread.

"We've got the building where we want it. All the buildings to the south have been saved," the deputy chief said.

No injuries have been reported, but the City of Victoria asked locals to stay away, if possible, due to poor air quality. The Coast Guard has also laid booms in the harbour to stem runoff from firefighters' hoses flowing into the ocean. 

More than two dozen firefighters were on scene working to control the fire on Pandora Avenue. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

Atkinson said the building is "too far gone" for crews to get inside and do a structural assessment. He believes further collapse is still a possibility. 

"A fire of this scope is going to continue to burn for a long period of time.... We'll be here for a few more hours at least," he said, speaking to reporters just before 11 a.m.

Fire 'could be' suspicious

When asked if the fire was being treated as suspicious, Bruce hinted that was at least being considered.

"It could be," he said. "I hate to speculate on what the cause was, but you know, the fact is it was quite a significant fire to evolve that quickly. [It] certainly leads us to think that, you know, there could have been some assistance."

Atkinson said flames were first spotted in the building's basement. People staying in vacation rentals next door told CBC News they were woken by fire alarms around 4 a.m. 

"It's pretty crazy to see," said Brendan Hessels, who was in Victoria on a work trip from the city of Duncan on Monday morning.

"It's kind of a sight to see downtown, so close to everything, such big flames and all the force from the Victoria Fire Department ... You don't see that often," he said, holding his phone up to stream the fire to friends and family on Facebook. "It's a very old building. A lot of history burning down in Victoria right now."

All of the buildings on Government Street between Pandora Avenue and Johnson Street have been evacuated and the roads around the block are closed. Bike lanes are closed and bus routes are affected.

City hall, which is less than a block from the fire, was shut down just before 10 a.m. due to the air quality and road closures in the area. Bruce said the closures could last beyond Monday.

"Definitely the smoke is a concern," he said. "There's really very little we can do about it other than let it dissipate and try and get the fire out quickly."

The Plaza Hotel, which has been permanently closed since 2013, once housed Monty's Showroom Pub and the Cabin 12 restaurant. The complex had recently been eyed for development.

With files from Madeline Green, Drew Kerekes and Megan Thomas

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