Blaze guts suspected Emerald grow-op

Neighbours relieved their homes were spared

Residents living next to a suspected grow-op that was gutted by a fire Saturday (Feb. 8) morning are relieved that their home narrowly escaped damage.

Next-door neighbour Colt Paseska said he woke up around 6:30 a.m. to a crackling sound. "It sounded like rain," he said. "I could see an orange glow and I grabbed the phone to call the fire department."

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After waking up his two roommates, the group grabbed money and cellphones and ran out of the house, leaving all their belongings behind.

"There were sparks flying towards us as we were leaving the house," said Spencer Culver, one of the roommates. "We were walking to the street and the firemen were going on about how the fire hydrants were frozen. So we started to freak out. We stood on the street and we actually thought that our house was totally engulfed because it looked like that from the street."

He called his parents and told his mom, "We're losing everything," he said.

They were all surprised and relieved to learn later that fireman had saved the homes on either side. "We're really thankful," Culver said. "It's a great afternoon."

Fire crews were called to a house in the 9300-block of Emerald Drive shortly after 6:30 a.m. after receiving reports that smoke was coming from a building. RCMP confirmed that the house was a suspected grow-op, said Fire Chief Sheila Kirkwood. "Based on that, the crews didn't make an interior attack and we went to a defensive mode," she said. "We're not putting any crews inside the house, putting them in danger. First priority really is to ensure the houses to the sides of it didn't catch on fire."

Crews razed the house later that day after investigators determined the cause was electrical, stemming from the alleged grow-op. "Certainly there were indications on scene that the property had been used as a grow-op," Kirkwood said. "They were pulling excessive power from the power pole and there was excessive wiring in the house."

No one was injured in the blaze. BC Hydro temporarily cut power to the neighbourhood, but it was restored by late morning.

RCMP Staff Sgt. Steve LeClair said that while officers also found evidence of a grow-op, including shrouds, potting soil and filters, they did not find any marijuana. Police were investing that property in 2009, but closed the file in May 2010. "If there's no marijuana, there's no offense," LeClair said. "If there's potting soil and equipment, there's no offense for that. There has to be an active grow-op there."

Many neighbours said they suspected the home was a grow-op, but also had no concrete proof. "It was weird. We've never seen people there, really," said Paseska, who's lived next door for about a year. "They had stuff covering the windows from the inside. We never gave it much thought until now."

Dennis van Dongen, a longtime neighbour who is also a volunteer firefighter, said he had his suspicions as well. "We suspected (it was a grow op) for a while," he said. "BC Hydro (has been) here measuring power on the lines. I asked, 'What are you guys doing?' but they couldn't say."

Van Dongen's tenant, Melanie Schumacher, was one of the first to spot the fire after driving her husband to work Saturday morning. After calling police, she leapt into action, notifying neighbours on either side of the burning house.

"I could see a bit of smoke in the bush near the street coming onto the road," she said. "It was so surreal. I ran down to the road, called 911, notified them and thought, 'I'll go knock on the door and the side people's houses because with the wind you never know.' There was nobody in the (burning) house and everybody next door had woken up."

Fire officials haven't yet been able to reach the homeowners. Kirkwood warns that all landlords in Whistler - even those living elsewhere - should be aware of what's happening on their property. "I would caution that owners of property, regardless of whether they're renting it, need to be responsible," she said.

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