Two apartment towers in Calgary’s downtown Chinatown district were evacuated yesterday after thick smoke from a burning building next door caused elevated levels of carbon monoxide and closed off a major commuting route.

Many found refuge with family and friends, but the city was sheltering about 54 people while firefighters battled the blaze and planned to find overnight accommodations for those who needed it, said Bruce Burrell, Calgary’s emergency-management agency director
Wai Chin was one of the residents evacuated and said he was surprised to see a fire.

“I did not know what was happening, they just said to go,” he said outside his building.

“I will go stay with my family at their home until this is done.”

Late in the afternoon, a backhoe ripped away the bricks of the burning Centre Street building, which is about a century old, after an engineer ruled it was structurally unsound.

“This is a critical, major roadway in the city of Calgary, so we have a building that was declared structurally unstable partway through the fire today as an imminent hazard, and we were told it had to be demolished,” said Burrell.

Emergency crews were first called to the fire at about 5 a.m. and started monitoring carbon-monoxide levels soon after, said Burrell. As smoke continued to billow against the apartment towers, those levels eventually started to rise.

“When they reached about half of what is the permissible limit, we made the conscious decision that we’d rather evacuate people while it was still safe than wait until it got any worse and then have to, potentially, treat people because they’d been exposed to carbon monoxide.”

Burrell said about five interpreters advised residents in both Mandarin and Cantonese that they had to leave.

Fire spokesman Jeff Budai said firefighters had been called to the address in the past, but couldn’t give details.

Traffic was snarled in the city’s core, with detours set up around the area, backing up commuters wishing to leave during the afternoon rush hour. the canadian press
with files from Krista Sylvester