Keele campus set to return to normal today after fire

York University’s Keele campus is open today after a fire in the Central Utilities Building took out the steam boilers and co-generators Monday, causing the closure of the campus.

Exams were cancelled for Monday afternoon and evening, as well as Tuesday, and are being rescheduled. The normal exam schedule is in effect today.

“I want to thank each and every student for your patience and understanding as you work with your professors to manage the task of successfully writing and completing your examinations,” said York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri in a message to the community (see From the President). “My thoughts are with you as you focus on the task at hand during this most important time in your academic year.”

Left: A shot of the fire in the Central Utilities Building before the Toronto Fire Department had extinguished it

By late yesterday, approximately 50 per cent of  exams had already been rescheduled, according to Joanne Duklas, assistant vice-president enrolment management & University registrar. More than 100 exams, written by thousands of students, were affected. For more information on the rescheduling of exams, students should consult the Current Students website.

The cause of the fire, which started at about noon on Monday and was fully extinguished by about 4pm, is still being determined. Damage was caused to one of the steam boilers, the roof and the electrical cables in the Central Utilities Building, requiring the natural gas supply to the building to be shut off.

“We recognized there would be no steam heat going to the campus buildings and given the effect on staff, faculty and students, we elected to activate the Emergency Operations Centre,” said Richard Francki, assistant vice-president, Campus Services & Business Operations (CSBO). He noted that the campus did not lose electrical power at any point, with the exception of the Central Utilities Building.

The emergency plan called for students living in residence to be relocated to local hotels and staff and faculty to leave the campus. Some 1,078 students from the campus residences were given meal vouchers and relocated to area hotels, while the Red Cross set up about 750 beds in the Rexall Centre as an emergency hub to accommodate any students who were not on campus during the evacuation – two students ended up staying there for the night. All students are now back in their residences.

“It was a huge logistical challenge to move that many students from 14 different buildings on campus to approximately 14 different hotels using 27 buses, mostly TTC buses, but also York’s buses,” said Debbie Kee, director of housing services, CSBO. “But the team, including Residence Life and Housing Services staff, Transportation Services and the emergency operations people, did a fantastic job of coordinating everything. I think it went extremely well.”

Right: Damage to the inside of the Central Utilities Building

The coordination of the hotels and students also included making arrangements for three physically challenged students to be moved to the Delta Chelsea Inn downtown where they could receive the attendant care they needed. Students from both the undergraduate and graduate residences needed to be moved and that meant children and pets, including dogs, cats and rabbits.


“We really appreciated the patience and cooperation of our residence students as we orchestrated their safe move to the hotels and back to campus,” said Kee.

It was about 6pm by the time the fire was out and it was determined there were no lasting hot spots, so that University staff could get back into the Central Utilities Building, said Francki. Diesel-powered air compressors and generators were quickly brought in and hooked up so that a steam boiler, and then a gas turbine co-generator could be started. By about 9pm, heat was being generated, although it would still be a few hours before heat was completely restored to all campus buildings.

The problem was, “We didn’t know if the units were stable,” said Francki. “We didn’t know if there would be enough heat.” To be on the safe side, especially given the extreme cold weather alert, the plan to relocate the students from residence went ahead between 9 and 11:30pm at the University’s expense. “The residence staff was wonderful, and we accommodated all the students. We even had a back-up plan to put the students who didn’t make it onto one of the buses into warm beds.”

Left: The emergency management team cheers after hearing the heat had been restored to campus buildings

Even with the heat back on, there was still a potential risk to the University. If the heat failed at any time in the night the pipes in buildings on campus could freeze and burst causing further and extensive damage. Fortunately, that didn’t happen, and the heat stayed on. “I think given the circumstances, it went really well,” said Francki. “It’s a real tribute to the people who put together the emergency management plan and the engineers who worked hard to get the heat back on.”

In addition to the York staff, “the Toronto Fire Department did an amazing job of bringing the fire under control,” said Francki. The Toronto emergency operations system was also called in and “there was tremendous support from numerous outside services and individuals, as well as academic and staff support.”

Just a few of the many people whose help was instrumental, said Francki, included Sharon Hooper, assistant vice-president, Human Resources and chief human resources officer; Brad Cochrane, director of energy management in CSBO; John Vasiliou, chief engineer in Utilities, CSBO;Trudy Pound-Curtis, assistant vice-president finance and chief financial officer; and Debbie Kee, along with members of the Toronto Police Service and the Red Cross. The State Group, Enbridge, Black and McDonald, Flynn Roofing, the TTC and Winmar Disaster Recovery were all called in and helped the University get back to business. The Toronto Catholic District School Board even offered the use of its gymnasiums for student exams.

Now, while the fire is out and the campus is back to normal, the roof of the Central Utilities Building still needs to be repaired. Structural engineers have examined the damaged roof skin and structure and have deemed it safe, and a roofing contractor is finishing repairs to make sure the skin remains water tight throughout the winter. “We’ll have to have a contractor come in and replace the damaged parts of the structure, possibly in the spring,” says Francki.

There were no casualties as a result of the fire and Glendon campus activities were not affected.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer