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Donations sought for Burnaby fire victims

The Ansari family were forced out of their home on May 7 when a fire broke out in their building, and have not yet returned.  - Wanda Chow/NewsLeader
The Ansari family were forced out of their home on May 7 when a fire broke out in their building, and have not yet returned.
— image credit: Wanda Chow/NewsLeader

It was two-year-old Assad Ansari’s cry and cough that saved the day.

His mom, Rocio Aguirre, 33, woke up, concerned that her son might be coming down with a cold.

Then she smelled the smoke.

It was about 1:30 a.m. May 7 and the family was among several who were about to lose their homes at the Salish Villa complex at 7341 19th Ave. in Burnaby.

Aguirre opened the bedroom door to the living room and the smell of smoke got stronger. Her husband, Mohammad Reza Ansari, 32, was on the phone by an open window so didn’t notice until she alerted him.

Ansari said in an interview that since January, there had been at least three false fire alarms a week at the complex, so residents had started to ignore them, as they did this night.

He opened the door to the hallway and thick black smoke poured inside their third-floor suite. He quickly woke up their three kids, including Amir, 4 and Yusuf, six months, and put their jackets on. He then wrapped Yusuf tightly in a blanket, covering his face, and tried to take him down to safety, intending to return for the others.

“When I opened the door the second time, more smoke came in. I didn’t know which end of the building was which.”

Unbeknownst to him, he ended up running towards the suite where the fire was burning, only realizing it when it got too hot to continue. He rushed back to their suite, shut the door behind them and told the family to get out onto the balcony where he closed the door and called 911.

Firefighters came within minutes and the young family was rescued on a ladder.

But while they’re safe, their troubles were only beginning.

They were left homeless and have been staying in local hotels—first at the Best Western and now at the Happy Day Inn—funded by provincial emergency funding, community donations and BC Housing, while they wait for a new place to live. Unwilling to leave his wife to deal with the disruption alone, Ansari lost his job with a delivery company. He’s now hoping to take a course to become a taxi driver.

Laarni de los Reyes, constituency assistant for Burnaby-Edmonds MLA Raj Chouhan, said about 19 families were displaced and most are low-income earners and had no insurance.

On Monday, Chouhan himself said eight families were still staying in local hotels but only three families were still in search of new housing. He had called Housing Minister Rich Coleman and BC Housing about the residents’ plight and “got a really good response.”

Tom Foreman, Burnaby’s assistant fire chief administration, said the cause of the fire is undetermined and likely never will be. The woman living in the suite says she woke up to see a fire in the kitchen area but doesn’t remember anything else.

“It’s almost like someone threw a grenade in that room, the heat was so intense,” said Foreman, noting fire investigators don’t believe the fire was suspicious.

The woman suffered a cut to her hand but amazingly, no one else was injured other than smoke inhalation.

Foreman said asbestos was found in the building and the roof structure was in danger of collapsing, so it will be weeks before residents are allowed back in to retrieve their belongings.

Maggie Marquardt, outreach worker with South Burnaby Neighbourhood House, said the asbestos issue means furniture and other household items would have to be cleaned, at a significant cost, so community agencies are seeking donations to help the families replace items and get back on their feet.

Anyone wanting to help is asked to send donations made out to South Burnaby Neighbourhood House and marked “Fires on Salish Villa.” Tax receipts will be issued for donations of $15 or more.

Donations of furniture or household items are being collected by Helping Families in Need. For more information call 604-294-3087 or visit www.helpingfamiliesinneed.org.

As for the Ansari-Aguirre family, on Monday they were still awaiting word whether they could move into a subsidized BC Housing apartment, now that they are without any income.

Mohammad Reza Ansari said with a laugh that their kids sometimes ask when they can go home but otherwise think they’re on some kind of adventure.

He noted that he was 10 years old when civil war forced him to leave his native Afghanistan as a refugee.

“I have experienced worse than this situation. The only thing that worries me is a roof on top of my kids.”

wchow@burnabynewsleader.com

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