The community is rallying around nearly 100 people left temporarily homeless after a fire tore through their apartment building on Craigflower Road Sunday, killing one woman in her 60s.
The Esquimalt Church of the Nazarene, which immediately opened its doors to residents fleeing the fire at 843 Craigflower Rd., has since launched a gofundme campaign in an attempt to raise $2,000 per displaced family “to ease the pain of loss.”
Four fire departments were dispatched to the four-storey apartment building around 3:50 p.m. Sunday after multiple 911 calls came in reporting people trapped on their balconies by a fire on the top floor. Tragically, the fast-moving blaze engulfed one apartment and balcony, before the fire trucks arrived.
To the horror of everyone gathered helplessly on the sidewalk below, Judith Rose Burke, whose fourth-floor balcony faces Craigflower Road, perished before their eyes.
“That was an extremely traumatic call,” said Assistant Chief Steve Serbic with Esquimalt Fire Department. “There is a human factor for everyone who responded to that fire. I’ll never forget those first couple minutes. It’s etched in my memory.”
Burke had lived in the apartment for years, and was closing in on retirement, having spent an earlier career as an international trade law specialist before switching directions to become a water quality scientist. The move, she had previously written on her website, was fuelled by her love of nature and the importance of clean water.
An avid painter and drawer since childhood, Burke painted naturescapes and created quirky cartoons about her life adventures, from schooling to her love of windsurfing.
She lived with her cat, which was seen leaping four storeys to the ground just before the flames completely engulfed the balcony.
In addition to Burke being caught on her balcony, the neighbour one balcony over had to be rescued from his, as well as three people on the back side of the building.
If not for the coordinated quick response of all four agencies dispatched – Esquimalt Fire Department, CFB Esquimalt Fire, View Royal Fire Department and Victoria Fire Department – the loss of life could have been higher that day.
“It was hard to get that unit under control. That building being saved and those lives being saved was because of all those different agencies working together,” said Serbic. “Apartment structure fires are complicated, there are a lot of people involved. I really thought we were going to lose that building. Without every agency coming there, we would have.”
While Esquimalt Fire worked to fight back flames and rescue the neighbour from the front of the building – an extremely challenging task with steep ladder angles and a disabled resident – CFB Esquimalt helped to establish attack and rapid intervention teams. View Royal Fire squeezed its truck into a narrow driveway at the back of the building and set up its aerial device to rescue residents trapped there, while Victoria came in with one of their battalion chiefs and “helped us save the building,” said Serbic.
In the end, the fire was contained to three units, with water damage affecting another three units below.
Residents have been out of the building since, many put up in hotels as part of Esquimalt’s emergency social services program. It is unclear when they will be able to return.
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