By Steve Hubrecht
A local Columbia Valley woman played an important role in keeping the public safe during the massive fire in Langley a few weeks ago that destroyed a condo complex.
Paramedic Allegra Newill lives in the Columbia Valley, but commutes to the Lower Mainland for work, something she’s been doing for eight years. Newill, a 20-year BC Ambulance veteran, makes the long commute, leaving her two young kids back in the valley for two weeks at a time, in part because paramedic wages in the Lower Mainland are considerably higher than in the Columbia Valley, high enough to qualify as a living wage.
Newill was in Langley on the night of Sunday, April 19. She and her paramedic partner were on their way to a different call, when they noticed a firetruck go past, moving fast – far faster than a firetruck normally would. They followed, thinking the firetruck was going to the same call. The firetruck arrived at a different location — the condo buildings, which were ablaze with huge flames — than the pair’s original call, but Newill and her partner quickly realized their help would be needed here. They called BC Ambulance dispatch, which re-assigned them to the fire they were at, and dispatched other paramedics to the original call.
“When we arrived, the building was fully engulfed in fire,” Newill told the Pioneer. “The sky was lit up and burning debris was raining down.”
Newill has previous wildland and structural firefighting experience before and has a good understanding of fire behaviour. She saw instantly that the situation was quite severe, and those nearby residents were in grave danger. The condo building was not yet finished being built, but the apartment building nearby was fully occupied, and Newill noticed that, although some people living in that building were starting to get out, they were doing so slowly, apparently not completely aware of how big or how potentially dangerous the fire next door was.
She immediately began crowd control, getting people outside of the hot zone, and helping get people evacuated. While helping one resident out of the apartment, around to the side of the apartment building, she realized an entire townhouse complex was in behind, and that many people there seemed unaware of the blaze raging dangerously nearby.
The quick-thinking Newill took matters into her own hands again and started alerting and evacuating the townhouses.
“I was acting on instinct. I wouldn’t have done it, if I didn’t have a pretty good idea how big the fire was going to go,” she told the Pioneer. “I knew we had to get people out of those townhouses, that they were in immediate danger, and that we had to start right away.”
Newill lost track of time during the incident, but estimates it took about half an hour to get all the townhouse residents safely away from the complex.
In all, more than 100 people were displaced by the fire that night, with no fatalities and not even any injuries, which Newill termed “an absolute miracle.”
The photo shown here, snapped by Newill after all the people in the apartment and townhome complex had been evacuated, do not show the full scale of the massive blaze. Search online for ‘Langley fire’ to see images depicting the size and scope of the incident.
On April 30, Newill received a letter from BC Emergency Health Services chief operating officer Darlene MacKinnon commending her for her actions.
“I would like to compliment you on using your experience and gut instinct to notice something didn’t seem right with Fire First Responders (FFRs), and then quickly jumping into action. This is what makes BCEHS a great service when we have employees like you who have acute awareness of your surroundings and take appropriate action without request or expectation,” wrote MacKinnon. “I heard how you alerted neighbours to evacuate and began crowd control. This demonstration of partnership with our FFR colleagues, and the disposition to do whatever it takes for the safety of others compelled me to write and personally recognize and thank you.”