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'People lost everything': Early-morning blaze consumes downtown Yellowknife apartment building

One first responder was injured after an early morning fire consumed an apartment building in downtown Yellowknife Tuesday — destroying the homes of 33 families.

33 families displaced; Fire marshal says apartment had no sprinklers

Much of the Rockhill apartment building on 54th Avenue crumbled to the ground after a fire started Tuesday. The fire chief says the fire started in one unit and quickly spread. (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

One first responder was injured after an early morning fire consumed an apartment building in downtown Yellowknife Tuesday — destroying the homes of 33 families.

The Rockhill apartment building is on 54th Avenue and houses the YWCA NWT, which includes offices and transitional housing for families.

The local fire department was called at about 5 a.m. MT Tuesday morning, according to RCMP. Crews continued to fight the fire for more than seven hours into the afternoon.

It happened so fast.- Brenda  Kowana , resident of Rockhill apartment

N.W.T. Fire Marshall Chucker Dewar said the investigation is in its early stages, on Tuesday afternoon.

Dewar told CBC that a male RCMP officer was injured by smoke inhalation. He was taken to hospital, discharged shortly after and is now doing OK.

The building did not have any sprinklers, according to Dewar. He said Rockhill apartment didn't require them because it didn't meet the size and height standards in the National Building Code of Canada.

Dewar said he believes all residents have been accounted for, and that the fire will continue burning for "quite some time."

A firefighter fights the flames from the ground at Rockhill apartments in Yellowknife. Much of this side of the building is gone, as of late Tuesday morning. (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

Thirty-three families lived at Rockhill and have been displaced, according to the YWCA. 

"It happened so fast," said Brenda Kowana, a resident of Rockhill.

"I thought it was just a false alarm, only to come to my door and see that there was smoke. It was the real thing." 

Lina Gon says she's on disability assistance and she moved into the Rockhill apartments a few months ago. Her home was destroyed Tuesday. (Hilary Bird/CBC)

Kowana said people were running, kicking and banging on neighbours' doors. 

"I'm just overwhelmed, still in shock. But we'll get through this." 

Lina Gon, another tenant, said she heard lots of children crying. 

"I finally just got something to sit on, something to sleep on, and this is what happened," said Gon, who says she's on long-term disability assistance and moved in a few months ago.

"Lots of people lost everything."

Fire chief says 1 unit sparked fire

The city announced late Tuesday morning that an emergency shelter is being prepared at the Yellowknife fieldhouse for residents who lost their homes. All programs at the fieldhouse are cancelled and closed to the public until further notice, says the city in a news release.

Fire crews, RCMP, the city's municipal enforcement division and territorial public works and airport fire staff were working together at the scene Tuesday, police said.

Pieces of the Rockhill apartment were falling to the ground as a fire consumed the YWCA NWT building in downtown Yellowknife. (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

Yellowknife Fire Chief John Fredericks said firefighters initially tried to stop the fire that started in a unit on the bottom floor, but because of the age and condition of the building, the fire "rapidly spread to the top floor and into the roof."

Fredericks said the fire crew then started evacuating everyone from the building.

At about 7 a.m. MT, Fredericks said as far as he knows, everyone got out safe and the building managers were doing a count.

By late morning, parts of the building were bulldozed as other parts still burned.

Fredericks said the cause of the fire is undetermined. 

Darwin Paul Chalifoux, who lives next door and was watching the fire from the road, said he used to live in the Rockhill apartment building.

Chalifoux pointed to areas of the burning building as he spoke.

"I used to live in 310 and before that I used to live in 203. Good thing — I'm happy I moved out," said Chalifoux, taking out his cellphone and flipping through the photos he took.

Darwin Paul Chalifoux lives next door to the building. He says he was concerned for a friend who lives in Rockhill, but was relieved to find out that he had gotten out safely: 'he said he was the first one to pull the alarm.' (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

"This is my old apartment," he said pointing to a photo of a unit in flames.

Chalifoux said he thought his friend was still trapped inside his unit, because he saw fire coming out of it at about 5:30 a.m. 

"But I found him, I phoned him and he was in the car over there. He said he was the first one to pull the alarm."

This neighbouring building was evacuated early Tuesday morning. Glass was cracking and the exterior of the building was peeling off because of the heat. (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

Neighbouring buildings evacuated

Neighbouring buildings — Rockridge apartments and Fraser Arms apartments — were also evacuated early this morning. The fire was causing parts of the exterior of the buildings to peel, and glass windows were cracking on the side of the east Fraser Arms building.

"Heartbreaking," said Adrian Sangris, a resident of Rockridge. He says he was woken up to an RCMP officer at about 5:30 a.m. MT, with no chance to pack anything. 

"All we saw was a bunch of smoke from the back [of Rockhill apartments]," said Sangris. "It's pretty sad."

YWCA looking for a solution

Alayna Ward, director of community relations with the YWCA, said Tuesday morning the organization is looking to find housing for the 33 families.

Ward said they'll have a better idea in a day where they'll put families.

Ward stressed that the organization can only accept online donations at this time. She's currently asking people not to donate any items like food, clothing or furniture, because it can't be processed.

At about noon Tuesday, firefighters were still dousing the Rockhill apartment building with water. Crews were called at about 5 a.m., as the fire consumed homes of 33 families. (Randi Beers/CBC)

Anyone with information about the fire is asked to call the fire marshal at 867-767-9161 ext 21024.

With files from Randi Beers, Hilary Bird

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