Torch identified as trigger for Mount Royal fire
Thursday, Jan 05, 2017 06:00 am
Almost 300 people escaped unharmed as fire ripped through the upper levels of Banff’s historical Mount Royal Hotel in the early morning hours of Thursday (Dec. 29) – one of the biggest fires in the town’s history.
With flames reaching 15 to 20 feet high from the roof of the 135-room hotel, Banff firefighters were joined by other fire departments from throughout the Bow Valley for what turned out to be a grueling 10-hour battle to get the blaze under control.
An investigation has deemed the fire an accident, and determined a propane torch used by workers as part of construction work on the hotel’s roof lit up combustible material that smoldered for hours before growing into a raging fire.
Ten rooms on the top floor of the Brewster Travel Canada-owned hotel were completely destroyed as fire tore through them, with most of the remaining hotel rooms suffering smoke and water damage. The hotel previously burned to the ground in 1967.
Guests, some without shoes or jackets, and others still in pyjamas, fled the burning building in the middle of the night. An RCMP officer on patrol spotted smoke and flames on the roof about 2:30 a.m. and raised the alarm that led to the safe evacuation of 297 people.
Neil Brinkworth, who was on a ski vacation with his wife, young son and parents-in-law from Plymouth, England, was asleep when he heard someone banging on the door of his top-floor hotel room.
“They were banging on doors telling everyone to evacuate. As we started smelling smoke we thought ‘let’s just grab warm clothes and get outside,’ ” said Brinkworth.
“We just left literally everything – our passports, our wedding rings and all our valuables. All we’ve got is what’s on us.”
Banff’s fire department, in cooperation with two investigators representing insurance companies, determined the fire started approximately 25 feet from the west brick wall, facing Banff Avenue, along the south firewall.
The company working on the roof is Rocky Mountain Sundeck and Roof.
The fire started between two roofing systems. The roof area was approximately 92 feet by 57 feet. The fire was trapped and traveled in an air space between the two roof systems before eventually breaking through the roof in one spot, sending out 15 to 20 foot flames.
Six 100-pound propane tanks were found on the roof, which had they caught fire would have been disastrous and the fire would have been seen from Canmore.
The materials used in the refinishing work on the roof included buffalo board and three inches of polystyrene foam with a thick rubber cover layer, which fire officials say contributed to the intensity of the fire.
Silvio Adamo, Banff’s fire chief and protective services manager, said code requires a two-hour fire watch after the use of open flame, noting that did, in fact, happen, but the fire was unnoticed because it was between the two layers of roof.
“There was an open flame from a propane torch and it ignited some combustible material, and that smoldered and built and then burned through the roof about 2-ish in the morning,” he said.
“That’s where people saw the flames. There were 15 to 20 foot flames in the air and there were still people in those suites.”
Banff’s fire department was on scene within minutes, with three RCMP officers entering the hotel as smoke was beginning to fill hallways and started evacuating all 297 guests, including 41 children.
Banff Avenue was blocked off from Caribou Street halfway down the 100 block of Banff Avenue for most of the day as a total of 44 firefighters from Banff, Canmore, Lake Louise and Exshaw fought the fire and prevented it from spreading to other buildings.
Adamo said Banff is very thankful for the support of fire departments from neighbouring communities, noting the outcome could have been far worse otherwise.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do this without the help of our neighbours,” said Adamo, who directed tactical operations from atop Canmore’s $1 million Bronto aerial truck.
“I don’t know if it would have burned to the ground, but it could have been a much different outcome.”
Mark Hendrikse, Brewster’s vice-president of marketing, said they are still waiting on insurance providers for a detailed report on the extent of the damage before determining next steps, though all 135 rooms have been damaged.
“I think right now we’re expecting the worst, to be honest. We’re expecting the hotel will not be open for summer,” he said, noting guests and tour companies with bookings have been notified of the fire.
“Only 10 rooms were completely destroyed by the fire itself, but the majority of other rooms were obviously affected by smoke and water damage. Eleven hours of having firefighters pouring water on it has resulted in in quite a bit of damage on all the floors below.”
The community support during and after the fire was overwhelming, with Banff-Canmore Community Foundation calling for donations, including clothing, and the Red Cross chipping in as well.
Other hoteliers offered up rooms to displaced guests, retailers were giving discounts to people affected by the fire and Brewster itself was handing out $100 per person, per day to help their guests.
Local businesses were on hand delivering food and drinks to tired firefighters.
For Londoners Carolyn and Andy Bryan, the fire interrupted their annual holiday in the early hours and left them roaming Banff.
Woken by a fire alarm at 2:15 a.m., the couple immediately smelled smoke. They were awake at the time of the alarm as they’d looked out into the hallway 10 minutes earlier, due to noise from another room.
“We got some of our stuff and got out right away,” said Andy. “We went out the rear of the building and flames were still shooting up from the roof.
“But our passports, wallets, skis and everything are still inside.”
“We didn’t even get our socks on,” said Carolyn as she shivered on Banff Avenue at about 9:30 a.m. “We’re not used to this temperature.”
Those evacuated from the Mount Royal spent some of the early hours of their day busing around Banff, trying to find alternate accommodation. The Bryans managed to find a room for the night of Dec. 29, but had no idea how their ski holiday would play out beyond that.
“Caribou was very good about getting us a room,” said Carolyn. “Otherwise, we were just sitting there, not knowing what to do. You can’t do anything and you don’t have anything to do it with.”
“Really, everyone has been fantastic,” said Andy.
Yvonne and Trevor Bodilly, Brinkworth’s inlaws, said the hotel owners were amazing and wanted to thank everyone involved.
“Things you can buy and replace, but we’re just happy no one was hurt,” said Yvonne.
Brewster is in the process of finding jobs at their other businesses, or elsewhere in town, for the 60 to 65 staff members at the Mount Royal, including the hotel itself, Tony Roma’s restaurant and Toque Canadian Pub.
Other affected businesses, in addition to the hotel and its restaurants, include
Cow Ice Cream, Banff Trail Riders, Banff Doghouse, Lole, The North Face, Atmosphere and Fingers and Toes.
Most of the visitors staying at the Mount Royal have since moved on from Banff or gone home, while remaining guests have been put up in other hotels in town for the remainder of their vacation.
Other than the 10 completely destroyed rooms, Hendrikse said the company was able to get access to the hotel rooms over the weekend to allow removal of personal belongings and luggage.
“We have either returned them to our guests or are shipping them out,” said Hendrikse.
“With the 10 rooms that were completely destroyed in the fire, individuals in those rooms will have to work through their insurance providers.”
The Mount Royal Hotel was built in 1908 and opened on May 8, 1909. It was sold by the McDougall family three years later on May 11, 1912 to James Brewster for almost $100,000. But on March 21, 1967, the hotel burned to the ground.