Smith Ave. fire victims having to start over

Jamie Menzies had to put his beloved dog down on Valentine's Day but now he sees it as a blessing in disguise.

Menzies, 40, was among the residents who narrowly escaped a fire that destroyed their Burnaby apartment complex at 3526 Smith Ave. early Sunday morning.

"I really love my dog so I think I would've put myself at risk trying to get him out, so it was probably a blessing that he was gone."

Most residents lived in the building because it was a rarity—a pet-friendly building where dogs of all sizes were allowed, Menzies said. But apart from price, there was little else about it to recommend.

"They did the bare minimum to keep that place going," he said of the owners.

False fire alarms were frequent enough that people had become complacent, he noted. This time, when they heard the alarm, it sounded faint, "almost like it was in a  building across the street."

Menzies' girlfriend happened to look out the window and got a face full of smoke.

"She turned and told me 'it's real.' By the time she told me that, black smoke was billowing out of the baseboards."

The hallway was dark and filled with black smoke and the couple had to crawl their way out of the building.

"It just happened so very fast."

While Burnaby fire department continued its investigation at the fire scene, now mostly just a pile of rubble, Menzies was among the numerous fire victims at the Salvation Army Metrotown's facility on Nelson Avenue on Tuesday, where emergency social services workers met with them to assess their needs and provided food and support.

Burnaby city hall manages the local response for Emergency Management B.C., which typically provides 72 hours of accommodation after incidents such as major fires. Tuesday was the last day for most residents, who had been staying at the Accent Inn.

Natalie Wright, 55, and her husband were sleeping out of their vehicles for two nights—she in a Toyota Corolla, he in a van—until they were able to contact emergency social services and get a room at the Happy Day Inn.

On Tuesday, the third-floor resident was still grieving the loss of her dog, a 160-pound Rottweiler named Kiwi.

She wasn't home when the fire started and her husband had just stepped out to the local convenience store. When he returned, she said, firefighters wouldn't let him back inside to retrieve Kiwi. The firefighters told them their priority was to rescue people first.

Wright had been visiting the fire scene and was still hoping firefighters would be able to retrieve Kiwi. "I know she's not alive, but I think I can see her body."

She recalled the building's elevator would start making an "excruciating" noise about three times a year, which would go away once repairs were done. It was also infested with mice, which she suggested might be due to the abundance of dog kibble in tenants' units.

"Rodents in the middle of the day running through your apartment, you know you've got a problem."

Wright appeared exhausted and said she had left the task of finding a new home up to her son, saying she didn't care about the details.

Michael Fex, 29, was having to take time off work as a central vacuum system installer to find a new home as affordable as the $900 a month he was paying for his one-bedroom, first-floor unit.

On the night of the fire Fex said he heard the fire alarms and saw an orange glow outside his window. "I looked out the window and saw flames burning up next door from me, next apartment over ... I closed the door and ran and told my dog, 'Let's go' and I grabbed my bag and I ran out."

Smoke had started coming up through the floors within 30 seconds and filling up the place "so fast, so fast," said Fex, who believes the fire started in the basement.

Within a minute, the fire seemed to be fully burning, and he questioned why the fire alarms and smoke detectors hadn't rung sooner.

Menzies and his girlfriend count themselves lucky as they're able to stay with family and friends are taking up a collection to help them out.

Like most people in the building, they didn't have insurance.

"We lost everything, except for our vehicles."

Even that was touch and go as he had grabbed the wrong keys on his way out the door. His girlfriend's mother was able to bring down a spare set and firefighters let them retrieve their vehicle while the fire was still burning. Otherwise, it would have been buried under the rubble that now stands at the corner of Smith and Linwood Street.

Ironically, after his dog died, Menzies said they had already been planning to move out.

Fex said finding a new home that will accept dogs is a challenge.

"I want to get a concrete place next time, I don't want to live in a wood matchbox," he said.

"You just get three days [in the hotel] so after that you just have to figure it out, I guess. So we'll just have to figure it out."

There was a slow but steady stream of people dropping off donations for the fire victims on Tuesday. In addition to housewares, furniture and clothing, Capt. Paul Trickett of Salvation Army Metrotown said monetary donations are needed.

"We're hoping for cash donations to help buy mattresses because you take such a risk with used mattresses," Trickett said.

As of Tuesday morning, only three or four of the fire victims had managed to find new housing, he said.

"We had a lady offer a place free for a month to give someone a head start," Trickett said.

Anyone who can offer to rent out a basement suite or other accommodations for a reasonable price is asked to call the Burnaby Task Force on Homelessness at 604-317-8114.

Donations are being accepted at the Salvation Army Metrotown, 6125 Nelson Ave., Burnaby. For information call 604-437-1521.

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