No sign of return to seniors' building four years after deadly fire

Almost four years after a fire forced about 100 Edmonton seniors from their homes it's still not clear when the building will re-open. The non-profit management agency that runs the building said the renovations were costing more than was originally projected.

'I can guarantee it won't be this year,' says head of Greater Edmonton Foundation

Contractors working on renovations at Canora Gardens at 151st Street and 101st Avenue Wednesday. (CBC/Gareth Hampshire)

Nearly four years after fire swept through a west-Edmonton seniors' building, it's still not clear when residents of Canora Gardens will be able to return home.

Edward Kelly was among about 100 people forced from their homes by the fire on July 31, 2012.

"Ever since then," said Kelly, 74, "I've been waiting and asking, and there's always delays, delays, delays."

Kelly left the five-storey complex at 151st Street and 101st Avenue just minutes before the fire started. When he got back later that day, he saw a fleet of fire trucks and emergency vehicles. Firefighters rescued people from windows, stairwells and suites.

Edward Kelly is frustrated it's taking so long to return to his home at Canora Gardens where he lived for nine years before the fire. (CBC/Gareth Hampshire)

A 79-year-old woman died in the blaze. The fire is thought to have started when a cardboard box was placed on a stove with the element accidentally left on.

While Kelly has been staying in another complex since then, he's restless to return to the place he calls home.

"That was where we lived," he said. "That was our home. We got used to it. For me, it was a better place to be around."

Canora Gardens is one of 41 buildings managed by Greater Edmonton Foundation Seniors Housing.

The non-profit organisation said it's been a more complicated renovation than was first anticipated.
Canora Gardens remains fenced off to the public as contractors continue with building work believed to be in the $10-million range. (CBC/Gareth Hampshire)

"It's been a long process," said Raymond Swonek, the foundation's chief executive officer.

Swonek said there were multiple insurance claims. In addition, once a decision was made to strip down to the frames and rebuild, contractors ran into nasty surprises in the residence, originally built in 1977.

"Once you start taking the drywall off, then you realise the plumbing wasn't done the way you thought it would be," he said. "Things were more damaged behind the walls than anticipated."

All the building's mechanical systems are being upgraded, including the heating and plumbing systems, Swonek said. Sprinkler systems are being installed along with other measures to bring the facility up to code.

Swonek thanked the seniors for their patience during a frustrating time but said when the building does reopen they'll be happy with all the renovations, including the redesign of every single suite.

"We're sorry any time one of our buildings burns down (and) the people have to relocate," said Swonek.

Raymond Swonek, CEO of Greater Edmonton Foundation Seniors Housing, said in addition to plumbing issues there was more damage than expected discovered behind the walls at Canora Gardens. (CBC/Gareth Hampshire)

He can't say for sure when the building will be ready to reopen, although it definitely won't be soon.

"I can guarantee it won't be this year," said Swonek.

With a lot of work still to be done he's reluctant to put any date on a reopening.

Contractors are still at work around on renovations, which Swonek estimates are in the $10 million range.

He said the Alberta government, which owns the building, would have a better sense of the repair costs.

The province has not released any estimate on the repair bill but said the initial damage assessment after the fire revealed deterioration to both the plumbing and mechanical systems, which threatened the integrity of the entire structure.

"We also discovered dangerous materials, like asbestos, in the residence," said Tim Chu, press secretary for the minister of seniors and housing. "We continue to work with the housing management body on the restoration, so residents of Canora Gardens can have a safe place to call home again."

A 79-year-old woman died in the July 31, 2012 fire. (CBC/Gareth Hampshire)

Kelly, meanwhile, isn't holding his breath on when he'll be able to go back to Canora Gardens.

After being discouraged for so long about the delays, he's now feeling numb.

"After a while the frustration kind of goes away, because you have no choice," he said.

Swonek understands some seniors are feeling anxious but said others are happier with where they're living now. All were safely housed after the fire, he said.

He said those who do return will like what they see. And they likely won't have to deal with any renovations again.

"With all the work going into it now, we believe it will be good for a long, long time to come."