2023 Port Coquitlam elementary school fire was ‘human caused, criminal in nature’: RCMP

Mounties have confirmed the Oct 2023 fire that destroyed Hazel Trembath Elementary School was “human caused." Meanwhile, parents of the school are still pushing for a rebuild.

The Coquitlam RCMP believes a fire that destroyed Hazel Trembath Elementary School in Port Coquitlam in October 2023 was “human caused,” it said in an update Friday.

Insp. Darren Carr shared that it’s been a “long four-and-a-half months” for the members of the school community who he knows have been looking for updates and information.

“The loss of the school has been devastating, both to the pupils and staff, and the broader community,” he said.

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“At this time, we believe that the fire was human-caused and are asking those responsible or those individuals who may know who is responsible to contact the Coquitlam RCMP,” said Carr.

Just after 3 a.m. on Oct. 14, Mounties responded to reports of a fire at Hazel Trembath in the city’s Mary Hill neighbourhood.

Footage posted to social media at the time of the blaze showed the school fully engulfed in flames, with thick grey and black smoke wafting into the air.

Smoke and haze drifted into nearby neighbourhoods, including Burnaby, New Westminster, and parts of Vancouver.

Port Coquitlam Deputy Fire Chief Mike Patrick told CityNews at the time of the fire that when crews arrived, smoke and flames were showing throughout the building. He said approximately 26 firefighters battled the blaze, which resulted in a “total loss” of the school.

Carr said Friday that the RCMP’s investigation has included canvassing 245 individual locations over a 19-block radius, taking over 130 statements, and reviewing hours of video.

“The fire investigators have worked diligently to identify the cause of the fire. The fire was human-caused, having started on the exterior of the school,” Carr explained. “Other causes such as electrical issues have been eliminated by the investigators.”

He went on to say that the investigation is not over but that it has confirmed “what we suspected, that the cause of the fire was human-caused and it is criminal in nature.”

Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West says the loss of the school continues to impact the more than 220 students and their families, including his own. West’s young son went to Hazel Trembath Elementary.

“It’s unthinkable that someone would deliberately start a fire at a school and in the process cause so much pain and damage to so many people,” he told CityNews Friday morning.

He’s pleading for those responsible or anyone with information to come forward to police.

Possible school rebuild still up in the air: Port Coquitlam mayor

Since the loss of the school, students have endured a longer commute to and from a temporary facility in the Tri-Cities. A private meeting was held late last year because the longer commute is eating into instructional time.

“From being able to walk from school in two or three minutes to having to get on a bus and take a 20-to-25-minute bus ride each way, that’s a very significant change,” explained West.

As for the timeline for a rebuild, West admits things don’t look good right now.

“My understanding is the [school district] has been directed by the Ministry of Education to prepare a business case for rebuilding the school and that business case has to look at a variety of options, including rebuilding the school, but also including dispersing the student population to other schools — something that is pretty frustrating to see on the table.”

He says in the aftermath of the fire, the premier, the minister of education, and the local MLA were all on board to get the school rebuilt.

“And yet the province is making the school district go through a business-case process where an option to not have the school rebuilt is on the table. My understanding is the district has to go through that process,” West said.

“They think that will take them until about June and then they have to submit it to the province for consideration by the Ministry of Education and Treasury Board. None of it seems to be happening very quickly.”

In a statement to CityNews, the Ministry of Education said Friday it knows “how important schools are to local communities and families.”

“After the fire, the Province worked quickly alongside the School District to provide resource allocation and funding for transportation and site clean-up. The Province was happy to see these efforts result in the impacted students and staff immediately moved to a new learning location and the entire school community kept together with minimized disruption to their learning,” the ministry said.

“While the Coquitlam School District is in the best position to speak to the specifics of their capital planning, Ministry staff are working closely with the School District’s facility and capital project team to assist with this stage of the process.

“The Province and District appreciate everyone’s patience while this process continues.”

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