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nesters hill fire

By Loreth Beswetherick About 35 Whistler employees who were banking on a roof over their heads next month have been left homeless after a fire destroyed a three-storey resident housing complex under construction at the new Nester’s Hill development e

By Loreth Beswetherick About 35 Whistler employees who were banking on a roof over their heads next month have been left homeless after a fire destroyed a three-storey resident housing complex under construction at the new Nester’s Hill development early Tuesday morning. The loss of the resident housing comes at a time the valley is already grappling with a housing crunch as it heads into the peak Christmas and millennium period. The Whistler Housing Authority estimates the community is currently short more than 200 beds. The 16 units in the building were close to completion before they went up in smoke in the early hours of Tuesday morning on Dec. 7. They were due to be occupied in January. Housing authority general manager Rick Staehli said the building still belonged to the Nesters Hill development group. WHA had entered into an arrangement to manage the property until the completion of a second resident housing building. The authority was then to purchase both buildings some time in mid to late summer next year. Staehli said it is still likely the authority will be able to buy both properties in the same time frame. "The adjuster has been there and has approved the rebuilding of the same structure. So, instead of taking over the management of one and then buying them both when they are complete, we will just purchase the two of them when they are ready in mid- to late-summer." Whistler Fire Department assistant fire chief Sheila Kirkwood said firefighters received the call at 2 a.m. Tuesday. At that stage the fire, which started on the first floor, was "fully engaged" but it could have started smouldering many hours earlier. Firefighters had the blaze under control around 6 a.m. "The problem with that type of modular construction is it is basically like little Lego boxes stacked on top of each other," said Kirkwood. "In theory they are supposed to be self-contained units but the fire stopping wasn’t complete at that point in the construction, so the fire really just raced through that building," she said. "The way it was constructed, it had all these little hidden fires between the party walls which we couldn’t get at." She said the structure was far too unstable and the fire too fully engaged to send firefighters into the building to tackle the flames from the inside. "At that point you are not putting your firefighters inside. Right from the get-go it was a defensive operation." She said at no stage were neighbouring properties under threat. Although Staehli, who has been in contact with the fire chief, said there is a feeling the blaze is highly suspicious, Kirkwood said there is no evidence that points to foul play. She said the fire department investigation into the cause of the fire is ongoing but, with instability of the structure and what was left after the fire, it may be difficult to get any meaningful evidence at all. "We may not be able to pin a cause on it," she said. What was left of the building was torn down Tuesday, leaving only the underground parking foundation. There is no word yet on the estimated cost of the damage. Staehli said the razed units would have accommodated 30 to 35 employees. "We had begun lining people up but we had made no firm commitments because a firm date (for occupation) hadn’t been nailed down yet — whether it was Jan. 1 or Jan 15," said Staehli. "But we had plenty of people. We have a very long waitlist." The housing authority currently has about 80 people waitlisted for long-term rentals but a second list to help out with short-term accommodation has also been started. Staehli said there is no doubt Whistler is experiencing a housing crunch. Whistler-Blackcomb has been trying to find accommodation for more than 250 employees and, although density has now been increased in staff housing, Staehli said the mountains are still looking. "We are working together in advertising. Many of their people are on our list. We try and accommodate everyone on the list as quickly as we can from the top down, but I suspect we are in excess of 200 beds short." The housing authority is appealing to homeowners who don’t usually rent to consider renting to employees, even just for the short-term. Staehli said the authority expects the pressure to ease in January. "We are looking for people to take us over the crunch month which we believe is the month of December only." He said there is no firm data to back up the feeling the situation will ease in January but it looks like millennium madness has thrown a spanner into the works with homeowners either trying to turn a quick buck with nightly rentals over that period or using the accommodation themselves. "There are all these what if’s and maybe’s. We really don’t know." He said the numbers should have balanced this year. Employer surveys done in the summer showed there would likely be more staff in the valley this year but there were also a considerable number of new beds that came on stream.