Residents at a former Traveller's Inn in Victoria were woken to a thick wall of black smoke and 10-foot flames shooting out of a nearby motel suite Monday morning.
Armed with axes and hoses, firefighters arrived at City Metro Suites motel at 2828 Rock Bay Ave. between 7:30 and 8 a.m. to battle the noxious cloud. Within two or three minutes they were able to knock down the fire that gutted at least one second-floor suite and forced the evacuation of several dozen residents, said battalion fire chief Mike Stark.
The fire's cause is still under investigation, but investigators planned to enter the suite as soon as possible to sift through the charred remains. Other crews were expected to remain on site until mid-morning to put out hot spots with the help of thermal imaging cameras.
"We were trying to attack at the same time we were trying to evacuate," the battalion chief said at the scene. "The whole room was involved and it took out part of the walkway."
No injuries were reported, but Stark questioned his peers about the reliability of the motel's alarm system.
Bells could be heard ringing after the fire was out, but could barely be detected as firefighters chipped away with axes at the upstairs roof overhang.
"Why are we hearing (the alarm) now," Stark asked other emergency responders passing by. "Why wasn't it going before?"
Unbeknownst to Richard Sitar, he was sleeping in the unit directly below the unfolding nightmare.
"I woke up and five minutes later I was fighting a fire," said Sitar.
The sound of breaking glass from above got his attention, and looked out and up to see smoke and flames.
He raced up the stairs to assess the situation, ran back down to grab his own fire extinguisher and then returned to the chaos.
"Me and another guy tried to put it out," Sitar said. "We were on our knees where there was less smoke.
"By that time the fire tripled in size," he recalled. "The whole corner (of the complex) was a big ball of flame."
A full shift of 18 firefighters and six fire trucks were dispatched to the scene. Oak Bay and Saanich fire departments were on standby to handle other emergency calls in Victoria.
At the same time, residents from the bottom floor suites, including a woman and her dog, were still being ushered out of their rooms around 8:20 a.m. Others milled about in their pajamas, couples huddled together for comfort and a few more stood nearby clutching some of their more treasured possessions.
On the street, Victoria police Sgt. Barrie Cockle moved quickly from resident to resident asking them to meet up nearby at the Streetlink emergency shelter. They were told they could make requests to have officers go into their rooms and retrieve any medications or important belongings.
"It was only a matter of time," said one older man, who did not wish to provide his name. "You see things and you be aware of what's going on around you."
He was lying in bed in his suite waiting for the coffee to perk when he heard people yelling outside.
At first he thought it was a joke, but the hollering didn't let up.
"I poked my head out and smelled smoke," said the man, who was staying just five units down from the blackened suite.
"You see the light still on there? That's my room," he said pointing to a suite where the door was still open.
Sitar, who tried to fight the fire before firefighters arrived, said the upstairs unit quickly became an inferno fuelled by numerous books and papers the resident kept inside.
"It was full of stuff," he said.
As he watched and waited outside on the street for a sign he could return to his unit, Sitar, still wearing his pajama pants, shook his head at the chaos of the morning.
"It was black and grey smoke," he said. "I can still taste it."