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How many high-rise fires could Toronto handle?

As everyone surely knows by now, there was a massive high-rise fire in St. James Town last Friday, and now almost 2,000 people have been left effectively homeless as inspectors try to determine if the building is even safe enough for people to go in and fetch some personal belongings—like a change of clothes or, in at least one case, a wallet. The fire has left the city’s services in chaos, as apparently nobody had planned for this kind of thing, despite the prominence of high-rise condo towers in the city’s housing boom.

The Globe and Mail reports:

Days after a six-alarm blaze tore through Canada’s largest social-housing building, authorities in Toronto are still in the dark: They won’t even guess at what could have caused the fire, what sent it flaming out of control or when the structure’s 1,200 residents – many of them the city’s most vulnerable – will be able to go home.

In the meantime, the complex effort to house the newly homeless, clean up the mess, assess the damage and make repairs is pushing the city’s resources to its limits.

“We’re in a crisis,” said Toronto Community Housing spokesman Barry Koen-Butt. “How do you accommodate 1,200 people? We just are not prepared for that.”

Part of the problem, says the Globe, is that the building was constructed in an age before the law required high-rise sprinkler systems. That the city’s more modern high-rises will be following a better building code is nice to hear. The Star’s Rosie DiManno points out that in the chaos, some groups have been doing good work—she points to Toronto Animal Services and NGOs like the Red Cross—but the reaction so far seems to have been a bit of a mess.

Probably the first break anyone’s had is that Toronto Community Housing—which owns the charred building and wasn’t exactly the most popular landlord before all this—is saying that tenants of 200 Wellesley won’t have to pay rent this month.

The big question we’re left with is, What lessons are being learned right now? Not to be alarmist, but if one high-rise fire causes this kind of chaos, could Toronto handle two?

• Toronto goes into crisis mode to cope with high-rise fire’s aftermath [Globe and Mail] • DiManno: City scrambles as victims of St. James town fire remain homeless [Toronto Star] • Wellesley fire evacuees get rent break [CBC News]

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