Nikki Rotmeyer and her husband were enjoying a quiet Family Day in their home, when all of a sudden, they noticed that the sun had been blocked out.
They looked at the window outside their unit and realized that the cause was a plume of smoke rising from the neighbouring building.
“It was like all of a sudden, the lights kind of went dim, like when the sun goes behind the clouds. And [my husband] looked, and he’s like, ‘Oh, my God, what is going on?’...and he ran outside,” said Rotmeyer, who lives close to the Tantalus Mall building.
“The smoke was so thick and black. And then we could see the flames coming out of the building.”
The Tantalus Mall, which is on 40340 Tantalus Road, housed residential units and the popular Wigan Pier fish and chips restaurant. It was also home to Grounded Grocer.
The structure caught fire in the late afternoon of Feb. 21.
Shane Houlihan of the Canadian Red Cross reported to The Squamish Chief that eight people were displaced by the fire.
“In partnership with Emergency Support Services (ESS), Canadian Red Cross (CRC) volunteers have registered evacuees and provided short-term basic supports, including food and lodging,” said Houlihan in an email. “ESS Supports are financed by Emergency Management BC, and administered by Canadian Red Cross and the local government. On expiration of ESS, Canadian Red Cross supports will be available through donor-funded programs.”
Rotmeyer’s unit was close enough that embers were sparking cedar trees by her home, but luckily her family and neighbours helped extinguish those small fires.
The complex where she lives was evacuated that day, but the inhabitants of that facility could return, as the fire did not spread to that structure and cause damage.
However, the Tantalus Mall building was not so lucky. It was hollowed out by the fire, and firefighters say it’s currently uninhabitable. The residents in that building have been displaced.
Fire Chief Bill Stoner told The Squamish Chief that crews are beginning their investigation of the blaze, but have yet to determine the cause.
“With the winds as they were last night, it was definitely a tricky fire,” said Stoner. “The crews on scene did an amazing job to keep it contained to just that building.”
There was a special Environment Canada weather alert in effect Monday night due to arctic winds that saw temperatures drop to up to -10 C with wind chill.
Gusts were also strong enough to cause debris to blow around town, and signs on the highway were swinging from the force of the wind.
Stoner commended the firefighters, the Red Cross, and others who responded to the emergency.
From initial viewings of videos and scene reports, it appears likely the fire started on the street side of the second floor, which is where residents were living, he said.
He said that firefighters sent one person in stable condition to hospital for smoke inhalation.
There may have been others who went to hospital on their own accord, but that wouldn’t have been tracked by the fire department.
Rotmeyer said she and other affected residents took shelter in the nearby St. John the Divine Anglican Church. This included people from her complex, as well as those who lived in the Tantalus Mall building.
Rev. Cameron Gutjahr, the church’s priest, said no one stayed overnight, but up to about 30 people were sheltering at the church until midnight.
Gutjahr said there was an outpouring of help from the community.
First responders checked in with people, and the Red Cross has been handling shelter placements for those who lost their homes.
Gutjahr said Essence of India provided dinner and Hector’s Your Independent Grocer
also gave food. Some concerned residents were dropping off coffee, blankets and clothes.
He added that it was necessary to provide shelter due to the cold weather and gusting winds.
“It was really beautiful to see the community of Squamish caring for each other in the immediate aftermath, and I really hope that that will continue,” said Gutjahr.
“It was really intense. And it’s still so recent. So it will take a while, I think, for us to, you know, wrap our heads around it, and they’ll need a lot of help.”
He added that it’s important for people to listen to the displaced residents’ needs and act accordingly.
Rotmeyer said she had a chance to talk with a number of Tantalus Mall residents while she was sheltering at the church. She also added that she knows several of them personally.
A number of them told her they did not have insurance to cover the losses from the fire, she said.
She was able to return to her unit in the nearby building, but her neighbours will not be so lucky.
It’s a particularly hard blow, Rotmeyer said, since the Tantalus Mall building was a relatively affordable place to live, which is an increasingly rare commodity in town these days.
One resident is still looking for a cat, she said.
The Red Cross offered its thanks to the community, saying most households have had their immediate needs met.
Currently, some of the displaced residents are staying with friends or family, while others have been temporarily set up with hotel rooms, the organization said.
However, Rotmeyer said that longer-term options for shelter are needed
“I think the greatest need for these people right now is if anybody has any rental space at all — any, even if it’s a short-term rental,” said Rotmeyer.
“That’s the greatest need right now,” she said.
-With files from Jennifer Thuncher