VERNON - Authorities are treating a fire at Kin Race Track as suspicious, just the latest in a long string of dozens of suspicious fires in the community.
The Wednesday night blaze destroyed the grandstands overlooking the race track, leaving a charred and unstable structure too dangerous for investigators to enter.
“We haven’t even been able to get into the building,” deputy fire chief Lawrie Skolrood says. “It’s really one of those things where you move something and that causes issues with the building and it comes down on you.”
Until they can enter the structure, investigators will have few clues as to where or how the fire started.
With a suspected arsonist setting fires across the city and an active lawsuit between the group that holds the races and the City of Vernon and the Regional District of North Okanagan, speculations as to the cause of the fire abound. But investigators aren’t jumping to any rash conclusions.
“We want to make sure we do it right, especially considering the situation we have in Vernon right now,” Skolrood says. “We’d like to put as much evidence into the boxes as we can and hopefully come up with something for what’s happening in Vernon.”
RCMP spokesperson Gord Molendyk says the public can help with that.
“We know there was a number of witnesses who saw the fire and have put pictures forward to various media outlets,” Molendyk says. “If those folks would be so kind, if you have video or a copy of those photographs, we would like to see them.”
Molendyk says the timing of the fire—mere hours after news reports surfaced about the cancellation of the 2014 racing season due to required electrical upgrades—and the possibility it was the work of a serial arsonist will be considered as the investigation progresses.
“It’s an extremely unfortunate coincidence,” the Okanagan Equestrian society’s lawyer Ed Woolley says. “I don’t know if the press coverage with regards to the track and the fact there is this person out there that’s been setting fires in Vernon, (if) there’s a connection.... At the end of the day, it’s just really unfortunate.”
Woolley is finding out whether the property, which is owned by the City of Vernon and the regional district, is covered by insurance. Because the power in the building was turned off, Woolley finds it hard to believe the fire was caused by an electrical malfunction.
“My gut feeling is this was arson,” Woolley says.
Fire investigators haven’t confirmed that power was in fact off in the building, and will be looking into it as part of their investigation.
The loss of the grandstands, which would need to be rebuilt, is a heavy blow to the Equestrian Society.
“We’ve had a tough fight over the last several years as it was. Having the grandstand burn down is not going to help in that fight,” Woolley says.
With this summer’s four races (the most scheduled since the 1990s) cancelled, Woolley says the 2015 season, and the racing industry in general, is in jeopardy too.
“If there aren’t any places for horses to run, people stop breeding horses, the trainers get out of the business, the jockeys get out of the business, and when you come back, there’s a serious question as to (whether) the industry infrastructure is going to be there,” Woolley says.
Rebuilding the grandstands will likely require cooperation from the property owners, the City of Vernon and the regional district, who have expressed interest in converting the land into some kind of recreational facility.
“It’s not necessarily impossible, but it would be extremely difficult (without their cooperation),” Woolley says.
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