A thick haze still hung on the 600-block of Pandora Avenue Tuesday afternoon as fire crews continued to douse water on the old Plaza Hotel.
Equipment was brought in to clear rubble from the building site and crews were seen wearing masks to protect themselves from the smoke and chemicals.
Pandora Avenue between Douglas Street and Government Street reopened to pedestrians and traffic on Tuesday. Passers-by could be seen covering their mouths and noses with sweaters, scarves and whatever else they had in hand, though the best step people could take as the flames continue is to avoid the area.
“That smoke is toxic so if you don’t have to breathe it in, I don’t know why you would,” said Victoria Fire Chief Paul Bruce.
So far, investigators have not been able to access the remnants of the heritage building to determine if asbestos is present or not.
Fire crews continue to douse the Plaza Hotel with water as demolition has begun. The 600-block of Pandora is open to traffic again but there’s a thick haze of smoke on the road. Pedestrians are walking by with their mouths and noses covered. #yyjnews #yyjfire #yyjtraffic pic.twitter.com/pUHYpDXBpf
— Shalu Mehta (@ShaluMehta32) May 7, 2019
Bruce said that Tuesday’s concentrated efforts are to put the fire out completely so that engineers can assess the safety of the area.
“What we’re very conscious of today is just trying to move timbers around as gently as possible so we can preserve the scene as much as we can, but still get the fire suppressed,” Bruce said. “It’s a matter of safety first; whether the building was built today or 100 years ago, we don’t want walls being compromised and falling on our members or falling anywhere.”
Once engineers have cleared the site, the fire department’s investigation can begin.
Victoria Fire Chief Paul Bruce said today’s priority is to extinguish the fire at 603 Pandora Ave. Possible excavation may be required, but efforts will be made to keep site as in tact as possible for investigation purposes #yyj pic.twitter.com/Lnt1CuXoZ6
— Nicole Crescenzi (@NicoleCrescenzi) May 7, 2019
At this point the idea of arson has not been ruled out, though there are some red flags in the situation including the speed at which flames could spread, and the uncertainty of whether a sprinkler system and fire alarm were activated.
The building had been subject to two recent fire inspections on March 21 and April 26, and was scheduled for a follow-up on May 8 to address any outstanding issues, which included burnt out exit signs.
In these inspections, Bruce was able to confirm that the sprinkler system was in place and working, and that a fire alarm had been tested. Bruce could not confirm if the alarm belonged to a third-party company or if it was simply an audible system.
It is unclear if the alarm system went off, but if it did it did not alert the Victoria Fire Department of the fire. Rather, the department responded to a neighbouring building’s alarm.
When asked if these facts raised the suspicions of arson, Bruce was uncertain.
“I’d be reluctant to say what we’re investigating because we’ve haven’t had an opportunity to investigate the property,” he said, “We’ll look at anything that could be determined as a factor.”
While many buildings have alarms which directly alert a fire department, others will have a third-party company alert emergency services, and others will simply make noise.
Bruce noted that this last system is particularly effective if there’s someone stationed at the building. The Plaza Hotel was supposed to have a live-in caretaker, Mike Draeger, who is still unaccounted for. The Victoria Police Department is now searching for any clues to his whereabouts.
As of yet a cause to the fire has not been determined. There are no major injuries reported, though firefighters have reported minor injuries related to smoke.
Government Street will remain closed between Johnson and Pandora until engineers have determined that the site is safe.