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Emerald Estates fire claims pets, dream home

Cause of blaze still under investigation Like many of Whistler’s original residents Frank Papenburg and his wife Olwen Kuiper lived as squatters for many years in order to save enough money to buy property and build their own dream home.

Cause of blaze still under investigation

Like many of Whistler’s original residents Frank Papenburg and his wife Olwen Kuiper lived as squatters for many years in order to save enough money to buy property and build their own dream home. They designed the house themselves, and did most of the construction work with their own hands.

A sudden blaze that erupted on the morning of Dec. 31 claimed their dream home in a matter of hours, as well as most of their possessions and three pets. When the Whistler fire department arrived on the scene 12 minutes after they received the call at 5:48 a.m., the fire was "fully involved," according to assistant fire chief Geoff Playfair.

"Flames were coming out at all levels of the house… and because the two residents both made it out, we did not attempt to go inside," Playfair said.

A crew of 26 firefighters and five trucks were used to combat the blaze, which was not ruled as extinguished until 10:30 a.m.

Playfair’s investigation was still incomplete at press time. The only thing they know at this point was that the fire started in the tenant’s suite on the ground level, which was occupied at the time. The tenant made it out safely, and was treated for minor burns to the back of his head and neck.

Papenburg, who drives a taxi, had just finished his shift at around 4:30 a.m., and passed the keys to Kuiper, who began her taxi shift at 5 a.m. He went to bed at around 5 a.m., and was sound asleep until he was awakened by the house fire alarm.

He didn’t have time to grab any of his possessions or locate the family pets before leaving the house.

"I only had time to get out, my doorway was on fire. I basically had to run through the flames," said Papenburg.

Papenburg has lived in Whistler since 1976, and after almost a decade of squatting he, his partner and the tenant built the home at 9552 Emerald Drive in 1996. All residents in the house were fully insured, and Papenburg has already met with the insurance adjuster, receiving emergency funds until a settlement is reached.

"Will we rebuild? We want to stay in Whistler if that’s possible, so we will probably rebuild, maybe a little differently this time. That’s sort of contingent on the insurance company at this point, but if we can afford to stay in Whistler we will," said Papenburg. "This is our home."

Although they lost many possessions in the fire, Papenburg says the loss of the pets was particularly sad.

The family cat, Fifi-Lala, "just the sweetest cat in the world," had been with Papenburg for 14 years.

The dogs were Red, a 7-year-old healer, and Mini, a Puli that Papenburg and Kuiper rescued from WAG two years ago.

If and when they rebuild, Papenburg said one of his first priorities will be to fill the home with pets.

As for the tenant, Papenburg said they were in the process of evicting him for "careless behaviour," such as leaving a stove burner on all night.

"We gave him another chance," said Papenburg. "It was the holidays and he had nowhere to go. He was also a friend of ours, and was in a bad way recently."

According to Papenburg, the tenant does not know how the fire started.

"He (the tenant) was a friend of ours and a friend of friends in town, and he was having some trouble lately. We didn’t have the heart to evict him. In retrospect, maybe we should have for his own good as well as ours," he said.

It only took a few hours for Papenburg and Kuiper to find a new place to live. A neighbour offered a suite that was available next door to the former home, and they received several offers for suites and houses from friends and neighbours.

"If there’s one thing you put in an article, it should be that our friends came through for us, and our neighbours. The taxi company and our co-workers came through, as the workers got a fund going and the company matched it. It was amazing the support we got from the community," Papenburg said. "We’re really well taken care of. If we weren’t insured or had just arrived in town, it might have been a different story, but we’re doing okay."

According to Playfair, the fire department investigation could take weeks to wrap up.

The insurance adjuster still has to make a ruling, but Playfair says the house will likely have to be torn down and rebuilt.

Playfair says the saving grace in the incident is the fact that the house had a functioning smoke detector that alerted the residents to the fire, enabling Papenburg to escape unharmed.

"The fire alarm woke him, and from what we’ve heard he was really lucky in getting out when he did. It took 12 minutes for the fire to become fully involved. If people can learn anything from this incident it’s to ensure that they have working smoke detectors, and to check the batteries often. That can make all the difference," said Playfair.

The fire was the second in Emerald Estates in a week. The first took place on Dec. 23 at about 12:30 a.m., when a marijuana grow operation in the attic of a home at 9229 Autumn Drive caught fire. The fire department battled that fire until approximately 4:30 a.m.

Another fire at a squatter’s cabin by Function Junction took place on Jan. 1. One male was seriously injured in that fire, while a woman was treated for several cuts she sustained climbing out a window.