Coquitlam RCMP say it will be months before they can reach conclusions on ‘suspicious’ fire that destroyed Hazel Trembath Elementary

Approximately a dozen parents listened intently along a fence surrounding the site where Hazel Trembath Elementary School used to stand.

Coquitlam School District superintendent Patricia Gartland, was joined by Coquitlam RCMP officers on Thursday morning in front of the vast pile of charred rubble to provide an update on the suspicious fire which levelled the school earlier this month.

Insp. Darren Carr renewed the department’s call for the public to come forward with information, but said it would be potentially months before investigators release any definitive answers.

While he could not say with complete certainty the cause was arson, he said they are “assuming the worst.”

“In terms of how we manage the investigation, how we gather evidence, how we dealt with the scene, how we continue to investigate, we have to assume the worst,” Carr said. “It’s going to take some time.

“We’re working as fast and as diligently as we can. I understand sometimes from the public’s perception, that’s not quick enough, but we have to do a methodical thorough investigation.”

At approximately 3:17 a.m. on Oct. 14, Coquitlam RCMP received reports of a structure fire at the school located 1278 Confederation Dr. in Port Coquitlam.

Cpl. Alexa Hodgins, media officer with the department, said by the time emergency crews arrived, the school was “fully engulfed in flames.”

The fire was so severe that Port Coquitlam Fire Department continued to put out hotspots and flare-ups for several days, which further challenged evidence collection by investigators, according to Hodgins.

Coquitlam RCMP were forced to issue an air-quality advisory for the neighbourhood for several days due to the hazardous fumes.

Hodgins said investigators have now obtained more than 200 hours of video surveillance and conducted hundreds of witness interviews, as well as followed up on tips.

She said just determining the cause of the fire is going to take months.

“They are treating this as the highest criminal investigation, which would be arson,” Hodgins said. “As our investigation continues, that could change. . . . At the end of the day we are looking for the truth.”

While the fire scene has been released by investigators, no update was provided on when rebuilding the school will take place.

Carr said rebuilding is in the hands of the school district but added safety precautions should include remediation and environmental considerations.

He appealed to the public for any piece of information to assist with the investigation, no matter how small.

Investigators are specifically looking for information regarding the incident or video footage between 1:30 and 5 a.m.

“No piece of information is too small, sometimes they do bear fruit,” Carr said.

He could not comment on whether any tips provided so far have helped investigators.

“We all want answers. I want answers, Patricia wants answers,” Carr said. “This strikes at the heart of the community.”

When asked if anything could be recovered from the fire Gartland described it was: “basically a total loss.”

However, she said some of the most devastating things lost to the fire are the irreplaceable mementos and photos.

For example, Gartland said one Grade 2 teacher had her students write letters to themselves regarding future goals, and she would mail the letters to the students when they reached Grade 12.

“All those letters were burned in the fire,” she said. “But we will start new memories and new dreams and new hopes in this new facility.”

However, Gartland praised the school district’s quick response to the incident.

She said one of the school principals collected lists from teachers pertaining to the supplies they needed, which was then sent to all district schools to collect donations.

In addition, the SD43 foundation has been able to raise $70,000 for supplies. A GoFundMe page started by a Port Coquitlam school teacher and parent has also been started, raising over $15,000.

Gartland said the main concerns from staff, children and parents related to keeping the classroom groups together, which has been achieved through the relocation to Coquiltam’s Winslow Centre.

“They just didn’t want to be separated, so I think that was the priority,” Gartland said. “Overcoming that concern made the distance not a problem. Also, some of the students said it’s like a field trip every day.”

The Monday after the fire, the district student leadership council and all the students of Coleman Lake Middle School came out to welcome them, according to Gartland.

In addition, the district deployed their crisis team to the school to help the families, students and staff to support them, which is available on an ongoing basis, Gartland said.

“I think the entire school district and community has wrapped around those families,” Gartland said.

Anyone with information regarding the fire is being encouraged to contact the Coquitlam RCMP non-emergency line at 604-945-1550, and reference file number 2023-27725.

Patrick Penner, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Tri-Cities Dispatch