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A “flawless” response to Fairwinds fire, says mayor

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Cathy Dobson

Aaron Zimmer arrived shortly after fire broke out at Fairwinds Lodge Sunday night and says what he witnessed was a strange combination of chaos and calm.

Zimmer lives a three-minute drive from the retirement home where his mom, Merlin Zimmer, has been a resident for the last two years. 

On the night of Jan. 15, one third of the three-storey home went up in flames, prompting evacuation of all 120 residents and, by all reports, triggering one of the most well-organized emergency responses in the city’s history.

“The first thing I noticed was a parade of Fairwinds residents in their wheelchairs or with their walkers, moving down the path in their pyjamas,” said Zimmer.

“The ladies were mostly in their night gowns and slippers. Many of the men were in their boxers and t-shirts.”

The majority of residents were in bed when the fire alarm sounded at around 11 p.m. Most left Fairwinds with only the clothes on their backs.

Merlin Zimmer was one of the lucky ones because she was still up and fully dressed, said her son.  But she evacuated without her purse, her identification, her medicine or her coat.

“There was a ton of first responders, a ton of city workers and a lot of community members who showed up to offer their help,” said Zimmer.

“I saw groups of teenagers helping residents across the road and I saw Fairwinds staffers with lists of residents making sure everyone was out.

“It was the calmest, craziest situation I’ve ever seen. No sense of panic, just total organization.”

He was particularly struck by paramedics who had lent their heavy jackets to residents and continued to work in the cold without winter wear.

Every single resident in the 113-unit home was ushered across Michigan Avenue near Murphy Road, to Trillium Villa Nursing Home where many families quickly arrived to pick up their loved ones.

Sarnia’s emergency manager Ron Realesmith, says the speed of the emergency response was impressive, resulting in no one going missing and no injuries.

“So many people stepped up, knew their role and did it,” he said.  “From the fire fighters, to EMS, police, Lambton College, Fairwinds staff, Trillium staff and city staff, everyone did their job and they did it well.”

Victims Services volunteers and members of the community who arrived to help in any way they could are also to be commended, said Realesmith.

Key to the evacuation’s success was proper documentation from start to finish, he added, crediting Fairwinds employees for getting it right.

Zimmer knew his mother was accounted for and ultimately went to Lambton College to pick her up.  Sarnia Transit provided buses to transport the residents to the college, which is used as a reception centre in emergencies. 

About half of Fairwinds’ residents were not picked up by family during the night, but slept in emergency costs hurriedly set up in one of the college’s gymnasiums.

Realesmith believes the sheer numbers of residents in need of emergency shelter made the Fairwinds fire the biggest emergency response in decades. 

“It was definitely all hands on deck,” he said.

Zimmer got to the college at 2 a.m. to get his mom and was immediately taken to a room where he found her relaxed, sipping tea and eating cookies with about 60 others.

“The residents remained in good spirits despite their ordeal,” agreed Realesmith.

The college served breakfast the next morning and by 10 a.m. anyone not picked up by family was taken to Sunbridge Hotel, he said.

When it was time to pack up all the beds, 70 college students jumped in and helped.

Student volunteers jumped in the help take-down the overnight shelter that was set up at Lambton College. (City of Sarnia photo)

“We opened the reception centre at 1:30 a.m. and closed it by noon the next day,” said Realesmith.  “I think that’s amazing.”  

On Monday, just hours after the fire, city council commended the responsers.

“I’m grateful to hear that there were no casualties and that the co-ordinated efforts were unbelievably well co-ordinated,” said Coun. Brian White.

The emergency response was “flawless,” said Mayor Mike Bradley.  He had a meeting Tuesday with Canada’s Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino and planned to speak to him about it.

Fire Chief Bryan Van Gaver credited all first responders and said fast decision-making on the part of the first fire fighters on the scene ensured the evacuation went well. 

“Without that timely co-ordination, as we all know, this could have been a lot worse,” Chief Van Gaver said.  “So we’re all extremely thankful for the effort staff put in.”

He said fire and rescue personnel operate with a motto.

“We risk a lot when there’s lives that can be saved; we’ll risk moderately for property that can be saved and we won’t risk anything on lives or property that’s already lost.

“Staff really put themselves in harm’s way to complete this and I couldn’t be more proud of our staff right now,” the chief said.

He singled out Acting Platoon Chief Todd MacDonald, saying he did a fantastic job.

“He had several moving pieces and at any given moment you could ask him what was going on and he knew exactly what was going on and where people were.”

About 75 fire fighters from Sarnia, Point Edward, St. Clair Township and Port Huron had the blaze under control by about 1:30 a.m.

Interestingly, Sarnia and Port Huron have had a cross-border mutual aid agreement that goes back about a century, according to Realesmith.

There was a time, the two fire departments called on one another frequently for backup. But in modern times, it’s rare, he said.

On Sunday, Sarnia Fire requested a ladder truck from Port Huron and later Port Huron’s crew manned the East Street station while Sarnia firefighters stayed at Fairwinds Lodge.

Fire crews were still on the scene at Fairwinds Lodge retirement home Monday. (Cathy Dobson photo)

A spokesperson for Sienna Senior Living Inc., which manages Fairwinds, said the home is completely closed due to significant damage and the Ontario Fire Marshal is investigating the cause.

“Support from the surrounding community has been incredible with various organizations collecting donations for residents,” said Sienna spokesperson Nadia Daniell-Colarossi. 

Anyone who wants to donate toiletries or clothing is urged to take items to the Community of Christ Church at 1104 Leckie Dr. in Sarnia (519-336-2592) between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Sienna issued a press release late Tuesday listing items that are needed most:

Personal care items:

  • Combs/hair brushes
  • Shaving cream

Clothing:

  • All types of clothing and winter attire (men’s and women’s sizes medium to large)
  • Socks
  • Pyjamas
  • Warm sweaters
  • Men’s boxers, undershirts golf shirts/collared shirts
  • Women’s undergarments
  • Winter coats
  • Shoes/boots (sizes 6-9)

Other items:

  • Bath mats with rubber backing
  • Notebooks and pens
  • Microwavable food containers
  • Crossword puzzles/word searches/playing cards

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