Inuvik man to serve 9 more months for Whitehorse apartment arson that injured 3

Firefighters at the charred remains of a unit at the Ryder Apartment in downtown Whitehorse on Jan. 8, 2021. Zander Sydney-Firth, 22, will serve nine more months in jail for the arson that left three people injured and destroyed two units. (Jackie Hong/cbc - image credit)
Firefighters at the charred remains of a unit at the Ryder Apartment in downtown Whitehorse on Jan. 8, 2021. Zander Sydney-Firth, 22, will serve nine more months in jail for the arson that left three people injured and destroyed two units. (Jackie Hong/cbc - image credit)

An Inuvik man will serve nine more months in jail for setting fire to his then-partner's downtown Whitehorse apartment building in 2021, injuring three people and destroying two units.

Yukon territorial court deputy judge David Walker sentenced Zander Sydney-Firth in Whitehorse on Nov. 3 to three-and-a-half years in jail but gave him credit for time already served.

The 22-year-old earlier pleaded guilty to one count each of arson causing bodily harm, violating a release order, being unlawfully in a dwelling and assault.

According to an agreed statement of facts, Sydney-Firth was drinking with his partner and three other people at the Ryder Apartment, a building with more than 20 units on Sixth Avenue near Lambert Street, on Jan. 8, 2021.

Sydney-Firth and his partner got into an argument, during which he made a "threatening comment" before leaving the apartment.

A building resident told police she had a jerrycan of gasoline on her front porch, and Sydney-Firth knocked on her door that night but she refused to let him in. The fire alarm went off a few minutes later, she said, and her jerrycan was no longer there.

Security footage from the nearby Whitehorse RCMP detachment showed a figure walking from the woman's unit to the unit Sydney-Firth's partner lived in, then walking away as the entranceway became "engulfed in fire."

Two people in the unit escaped out a window; while one was unscathed, the other got stuck and suffered burns and smoke inhalation.

Another building resident who left when the fire alarm went off but went back to retrieve his car keys found Sydney-Firth in his apartment and kicked him out.

Sydney-Firth's partner and her friend, meanwhile, had to be rescued by firefighters. Both suffered serious burns and smoke inhalation, with the friend medevac'd to Vancouver where she remained sedated and intubated for a week before she could breathe on her own. The partner was in the Whitehorse hospital's intensive care unit for nearly three weeks before being transferred to Vancouver, where she received skin grafts on her hands.

The partner's apartment and a neighbouring unit were destroyed in the blaze.

At the time, Sydney-Firth was under a release order that required him to reside in Inuvik, abide by a curfew and not consume alcohol. He was arrested at the River View Hotel the same night and has remained in custody ever since.

Investigators later detected gasoline on Sydney-Firth's clothes, and he had a cut on his foot consistent with a glass door at the Ryder Apartment that had been kicked in.

Syndey-Firth's partner told police in February 2021 that he had assaulted her two weeks before the fire.

'Scariest thing that's ever happened to me'

In an impact statement read to the court by a victim services worker, the friend who'd been trapped recounted waking up to the fire alarm, struggling to breathe as the room filled with smoke and trying to escape before passing out.

"It's hard for me to think about the fire. It's by far the scariest thing that's ever happened to me," she said.

The friend said she was still experiencing flashbacks and lung damage that limited her physical activities.

In a separate victim impact statement, the man who was stuck in the window said he still suffers from shortness of breath and burn scars.

He also said that as an Indigenous person, fire held great spiritual meaning for him: it was a "place of peace," a tool and something intertwined with stories and memories.

"Zander stole this from me and now my relationship with fire has fear and anxiety attached to it," he said.

The elderly resident of the other unit that was destroyed lost most of her possessions, and said in her victim impact statement that she had trouble sleeping and eating for weeks. She also said the stress of the situation caused her dog, whom she relied on for emotional support, to die.

Steve Silva/CBC
Steve Silva/CBC

Defence asked for conditional sentence

In sentencing submissions, Crown attorney Sarah Bailey asked for a jail sentence of between three to five years. While she acknowledged his relative youth, Gladue factors and guilty pleas were mitigating, she pointed to aggravating factors including his criminal record, the victims' injuries, the potential for the fire to have caused more injuries or death, and that Sydney-Firth set the fire after an argument with his partner.

Defence lawyer Kevin Drolet, meanwhile, argued his client should receive a two-year conditional sentence. He said his client was significantly intoxicated and had little memory of what occurred but still fully accepted responsibility, describing his guilty pleas as "significantly mitigating."

Drolet also noted his client is a young Inuvialuit man who had a difficult upbringing and who now realizes he needs help.

"Nothing comes of further warehousing this young man at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre," Drolet said, adding Sydney-Firth would rather receive a penitentiary sentence so he could access federal programs than remain at the Whitehorse jail.

"Your Honour, I just want to say that I'm truly sorry for hurting the victims," Sydney-Firth said in a short address to the court, adding he is prepared to get treatment to ensure his drinking and drug use wouldn't hurt anyone again.

Judge Walker largely agreed with the Crown, ruling the seriousness of the crime justified jail time.

He sentenced Sydney-Firth to 42 months for the arson charge — with credit for time served — plus 60 days for violating his release order, 90 days for being unlawfully in a dwelling and 120 days assault, to be served concurrently. That will be followed by two years of probation, with conditions including no contact with the victims and attending programming as directed, including for substance abuse, spousal violence and anger management.

As well, Walker ordered Sydney-Firth to pay a total of just more than $2,300 in restitution for possessions destroyed by the fire.

The Crown withdrew eight other charges against him.