Nightmare on Elm Avenue

The scene at 217 Elm Ave. around 5:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Two people are dead after a fire early Tuesday partially destroyed a 30-unit apartment building in Penticton.

The blaze at 217 Elm Ave., which is across the street from Skaha Lake Park and only 150 metres from the water on the city’s south end, was reported at 4:10 a.m. and drew every available resource from the Penticton Fire Department.

“The wind from the lake pushed (the fire) deep into the building, into the shared attic space and took the majority of the roof off on the third floor,” said Penticton fire Chief Larry Watkinson.

Early indications suggest the fire started on the building exterior and travelled up to the roof, continued Watkinson, but he cautioned the investigation is still in its infancy and has been turned over to the police due to the two casualties.

The bodies were found after a structural engineer deemed it safe for emergency personnel to enter the ruined building and start searching, according to Mounties.

“The BC Coroners Service is also conducting an independent and concurrent fact-finding investigation to determine how, where, when and by what means the decedents came to their unexpected deaths,” RCMP spokesman Sgt. Jason Bayda said in a press release.

Greg Schuck, who was staying at the Beachside Motel kitty-corner to the rear of the apartment building, said he got up to use the washroom around 4 a.m. and could hear someone outside calling for help.

“Because I had the window open in the bathroom, I heard a guy yelling, ‘Help!’ And I thought, ‘That sounds legit.’ And I kept hearing it over and over and it intensified,” recalled Schuck.

After listening to the man shouting for a few minutes, Shuck went outside to see what was going on and noticed the glow of flames.

“It wasn’t too bad at the time, but of course with the wind blowing the flames just took off,” said Schuck.

Watkinson said his crews focused their efforts on defending a fire wall that separates the east and west sides of the building. Those efforts appear to have paid off, with most of the damage contained to the west side.  

Evacuees from the apartment building and nearby motels were loaded onto city transit buses to keep them warm while firefighters did their work.

Watkinson said 18 families from the apartment building later registered for emergency social services, which will look after them for 72 hours.

The wood-framed building was erected in 1981 and didn’t have a sprinkler system, according to Watkinson, who noted though that such interior protection wouldn’t have knocked down the fire as it spread along the exterior.

Just two years ago, the City of Penticton issued a permit for a complete exterior renovation of the building worth $100,000.

A two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit on the third floor is listed for sale online at $330,000.