British Columbia

Unattended candles caused fire that destroyed historic Vancouver building, investigators say

An aggressive fire that destroyed an historic building and pushed dozens of people out of their homes in Vancouver's Gastown neighbourhood has been ruled an accident.

Sprinklers weren't running because they'd been shut down for service after earlier fire: fire department

The remnants of the Winters Hotel in Vancouver are pictured on Tuesday, eight days after a fire destroyed the building. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

An aggressive fire that destroyed an historic building and pushed dozens of people out of their homes in Vancouver's Gastown neighbourhood has been ruled an accident.

Unattended candles in a second-floor suite at the Winters Hotel started the fire on April 11, according to a statement from Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services (VFRS) on Thursday. 

The department confirmed the sprinkler system in the building was not enabled on the day of the fire. It was shut down and waiting to be serviced after another fire in the building just a few days earlier.

More than 70 residents living in the single-room occupancy (SRO) housing in the hotel's upper floors were forced out by the fire. The four-storey brick building on Abbott Street also housed several businesses and a restaurant on the ground floor. 

Another 73 tenants from the Gastown Hotel, an SRO next to the Winters Hotel, have also left their suites until further notice because the building was damaged by toxic smoke.

Flames gutted the Winters Hotel, built in 1907, within a few hours.

Three days earlier, firefighters had responded to another accidental fire inside a different room within the SRO. The sprinkler system extinguished the flames and was subsequently disabled.

"At that time, fire crews shut off the sprinklers and issued a Notice of Violation to have the fire life safety systems serviced," the statement said.

"This notice requires a fire watch be put in place until the fire life safety system is back in operation. The notice of violation is a standard process when a sprinkler is activated."

Saul Schwebs, with the City of Vancouver, speaks to media in front of the Winters Hotel in Vancouver on Tuesday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The sprinklers had not been serviced or reactivated by the time of the second fire on April 11, VFRS confirmed.

Supervisory staff running the "fire watch" in the Winters building were the first to find the flames. 

"They attempted to extinguish the fire but were unsuccessful in their efforts. They quickly transitioned to alerting the occupants in the building," it said in a statement.

Five people were taken to hospital after the fire, including two in serious condition and one in stable condition. Crews rescued at least five people from the building, including one person who landed in a "precarious spot" after jumping from a window to escape the flames.

Crews started demolishing the hotel around noon on Thursday. Work had been delayed by several hours while police ensured the building was clear after receiving reports someone might have gone inside the building overnight.

"I'm still hopeful that we'll be able to have the building down tomorrow [Friday] afternoon and start getting things back to normal," Saul Schwebs, the city's chief building official, told reporters outside the hotel.

Fire crews are pictured on April 12 after the fire at the Winters Hotel. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

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