What caused the Garden Townhomes fire?

Shadaine Shirley believes he knows the cause of the fire that nearly took his life, destroying his home and 11 others at Yellowknife’s Garden Townhomes complex in October last year.

Shirley woke up that morning to the smell of smoke coming in from his open window. When he went downstairs, he saw smoke coming through the front door. Soon, the fire was burning inside.

He fled the building with a pair of track pants, his phone and his keys.

To stay warm, Shirley sat in his car while his house burned. Wondering what caused the fire, he used his phone to pull up surveillance video filming the front door of his house.

Rewinding through that day’s video, he says the footage showed a light fixture above his front door pop, smoke, then start to burn onto the vinyl siding.

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Another video captured an aerial view of the smoke spreading from his house.

When the fire cut off Shirley’s internet, the most he could view from the safety of his car was an aerial shot of the scene that showed little more.

From that view alone, it was impossible to tell what started the fire. An electrical issue? A faulty bulb? A cigarette, even? 

But the cameras kept rolling, recording footage to a hard drive inside the house that was retrieved from the rubble.

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Shirley agreed to let RCMP and the NWT’s fire marshal view the hard drive, in his presence, as they investigated the fire’s cause. 

Shadaine Shirley shows the aerial view of the fire starting, a clip that was saved to his phone. Simona Rosenfield/Cabin Radio

Almost three months later, Shirley hasn’t heard from them regarding the hard drive. He has requested multiple times that it be returned.

“They haven’t questioned me any more,” he said. “I’m surprised they haven’t said what caused the fire, because I was hoping they would have closed the investigation by now.”

Multiple investigations

The fire marshal’s office, RCMP and Can-West Fire Investigations, an independent firm, all have active investigations under way.

According to fire marshal Craig Halifax, his office’s investigation focuses on the “cause and origin of the fire and the circumstances around it.”

Should a report from the fire marshal’s office conclude there is evidence of criminal behaviour, RCMP would be responsible for pursuing charges. Police have said they have an open file on the incident.

Kevin Wedick, president of Can-West Fire Investigations, says his investigation is at a standstill while he waits for access to the hard drive and video footage that could help classify the fire.

He said there are four classifications of fire: incendiary (a deliberate act), accidental, natural causes (like a natural disaster) or undetermined.

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“It’s still currently an undetermined fire,” said Wedick. “An undetermined fire could be accidental. An undetermined fire could be deliberate. It’s just that we don’t have enough evidence to go one way or the other.”

Wedick said he will wait for the RCMP investigation to conclude before accessing the hard drive. Meanwhile, at a site inspection, Wedick identified that some materials had been moved – likely by the fire department to prevent damage to other buildings. Consequently, Wedick said, he was unable to rule out an electrical failure as a cause of the fire.

A fire at Yellowknife's Garden Townhomes on October 21, 2023. Emily Blake/Cabin RadioA fire at Yellowknife's Garden Townhomes on October 21, 2023. Emily Blake/Cabin Radio
A fire at Yellowknife’s Garden Townhomes on October 21, 2023. Emily Blake/Cabin Radio

In an interview with a resident that was recorded, assistant fire marshal John Ritchie said the Garden Townhomes building that burned was older and had no fire breaks in its attic space. Once the fire climbed the vinyl siding and reached the attic, it could have spread to adjacent buildings, Ritchie told the resident – which is why the affected building had to be completely knocked down.

While video footage appears to place the fire’s origin at Shirley’s front door, Wedick is examining a few theories.

“The things that have to be eliminated: is it electrical? Was there a short with a wall switch or a light? Or was somebody smoking? Did they discard a cigarette in a place they shouldn’t have? And, of course, the third hypothesis would be: is there somebody that would be targeting the building?” said Wedick. “We may never know. It still may come back that this is an undetermined fire.”

Cpl Matt Halstead, an RCMP spokesperson, said Shirley’s video had been preserved “in the event that it becomes relevant to a criminal investigation.”

Residents say the many unanswered questions add to their distress after losing their homes.

“Nobody wants to talk about it, nobody wants to answer any questions. They don’t want to post even what caused that fire,” said one resident, who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s not fair and nobody cares.”

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Private property on private property

Halifax, the fire marshal, says property owner Northview still has authority over the fire site and who accesses it.

Since the October fire, a fence and video surveillance have been set up.

Some residents say they are prevented from retrieving their belongings from the rubble, without explanation or a timeline from Northview. 

Shirley can see his shed is intact through the fence. Inside, he stored a winter bike and pressure washer that he now cannot retrieve. While his barbecue smoker was not damaged by the fire, he worries whether the elements have since destroyed it.

Shadaine Shirley at his new home after the fire. Simona Rosenfield/Cabin Radio

Northview did not respond to questions before publication.

Shirley said his losses are in the tens of thousands, but that’s not the whole story.

“I have this picture my friend gave to me, my best friend. She passed away. Now, that’s burned,” said Shirley. “I’m never, ever going to get that back.”

“I’m 60 years old,” said another resident, who asked not to be named. “All my collection for the last 40 years, it’s buried down there on that wreckage. It’s as if they bought this stuff from us for nothing. They didn’t pay us, there’s no compensation at all. Nothing. Zero.

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“My son, he told me: That’s the only place in life I lived on Earth, and now it burned. All I have is there. For him, it meant a lot because that’s all he had in his life.”

A resident who also asked to remain anonymous said she is a refugee and will not be able to replace items lost in the fire as she cannot return to her home country. She lost family photos and memorabilia from relatives she says she may never see again.

Residents say they’ve reached out to Northview employees regarding their belongings on multiple occasions, but still have no answers.

Communication issues

Throughout his tenancy, Shirley said, requests for repairs and maintenance were rarely answered by Northview. If a maintenance worker came for one reason, he said, he would take the opportunity to show them other issues that needed fixing while they were at the unit.

On one such occasion, Shirley said he showed a maintenance worker that his smoke detector on the ground floor didn’t work.

“The smoke detector was pulled down and the guy was like, ‘I’ll be back.’ He never came back,” said Shirley. “It’s been out for months. Nobody came and fixed it.”

On the day of the fire, he says the smoke detector was still missing, with a hole where it should have been. 

“Maybe I would have heard the fire earlier. The smoke alarm downstairs would have definitely gone off, because there was smoke and fire downstairs,” he said.

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Shadaine Shirley’s Northview apartment was missing a smoke detector on the ground floor for months, according to a photo of his apartment taken well before it burned. Photo: Shadaine Shirley

On another occasion, Shirley said he identified the faulty light fixture on the front porch to a maintenance worker, but the issue was never resolved.

“If they had come and looked at the light switch right when I called them, that building wouldn’t be burned down,” he suggested.

Northview did not respond to questions attempting to verify whether it held a log of such maintenance requests.

According to the Fire Prevention Act, all residential structures in the Northwest Territories are required to have a smoke detector on every floor of a unit.

Reported breaches of the act can result in a property inspection from the Office of the Fire Marshal.

If a property owner is found wilfully non-compliant – tenants notified their landlord of issues that the landlord chose not to remedy – the property owner may be criminally liable, Halifax said, or insurance companies may not be willing to cover damages.

“A person is criminally negligent who does anything or omits doing anything that it is their duty to do, if that act or omission ‘shows wanton or reckless disregard for the lives or safety of other persons,’” RCMP spokesperson Halstead explained. 

“The standard of proof required to show this level of negligence can be quite high,” he added.

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Shadaine Shirley has set up a new bedroom with toys for his sons. Simona Rosenfield/Cabin Radio

For Shirley, the pain of losing his home was compounded by what he characterized as months-long miscommunication over money he owed Northview and where he would be moved to, plus an eviction letter that he said the company told him was sent to him in error.

He’s no longer renting from Northview.

Now, he’s recovering from the experience. 

“I get panic even when I’m doing the dishes and I have some steam dry, and the smoke comes out of the dishwasher,” said Shirley. 

“I lost everything. I could’ve lost my life.

“I have a four-year-old and a two-year-old, and it’s so lucky they weren’t at the house that weekend. The negative stuff? I don’t really look at it any more. I just always see things sort-of positive.”

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