'Heartbreaking': 33 families displaced after fire consumes downtown Yellowknife apartment

Firefighters are still dousing an early morning fire that consumed an apartment building — home to 33 families in downtown Yellowknife — as of noon Tuesday.

The Rockhill apartment building is on 54th Avenue and houses the YWCA NWT, which includes offices and transitional housing for families.

The local fire department was called at about 5 a.m. MT Tuesday morning, according to RCMP.

Priscilla Hwang/CBC
Priscilla Hwang/CBC

Thirty-three families lived at Rockhill and have been displaced, according to the YWCA.

The city announced late Tuesday morning that an emergency shelter is being prepared at the Yellowknife fieldhouse for residents who lost their homes. All programs at the fieldhouse are cancelled and closed to the public until further notice, says the city in a news release.

Fire crews, police, the city's municipal enforcement division and territorial public works and airport fire staff are still at the scene as of 9 a.m., police say.

Randi Beers/CBC
Randi Beers/CBC

Yellowknife Fire Chief John Fredericks said firefighters initially tried to stop the fire that started in a unit on the bottom floor, but because of the age and condition of the building, the fire "rapidly spread to the top floor and into the roof."

Fredericks said the fire crew then started evacuating everyone from the building.

At about 7 a.m. MT, Fredericks said as far as he knows, everyone got out safe and the building managers were doing a count.

Fredericks said the cause of the fire is undetermined.

At about 9:30 a.m., parts of the building were bulldozed as other parts still burned.

Darwin Paul Chalifoux, who lives next door and was watching the fire from the road, said he used to live in the Rockhill apartment building.

Chalifoux pointed to areas of the burning building as he spoke.

"I used to live in 310 and before that I used to live in 203. Good thing — I'm happy I moved out," said Chalifoux, taking out his cellphone and flipping through the photos he took.

Priscilla Hwang/CBC
Priscilla Hwang/CBC

"This is my old apartment," he said pointing to a photo of a unit in flames.

Chalifoux said he thought his friend was still trapped inside his unit, because he saw fire coming out of it at about 5:30 a.m.

"But I found him, I phoned him and he was in the car over there. He said he was the first one to pull the alarm."

Priscilla Hwang/CBC
Priscilla Hwang/CBC

Neighbouring buildings evacuated

Neighbouring buildings — Rockridge apartments and Fraser Arms apartments — were also evacuated early this morning. The fire was causing parts of the exterior of the buildings to peel, and cracking glass on the side of the east Fraser Arms building.

"Heartbreaking," said Adrian Sangris, a resident of Rockridge. He says he was woken up to an RCMP officer at about 5:30 a.m. MT, with no chance to pack anything.

"All we saw was a bunch of smoke from the back [of Rockhill apartments]," said Sangris. "It's pretty sad."

YWCA looking for a solution

Alayna Ward, director of community relations with the YWCA, says the organization is looking to find housing for the 33 families.

Ward said they'll have a better idea in a day where they'll put families.

Ward stressed that the organization can only accept online donations at this time. She's currently asking people not to donate any items like food, clothing or furniture, because it can't be processed.

Priscilla Hwang/CBC
Priscilla Hwang/CBC