‘Apocalyptic fire’ leaves residents frustrated

Thick smoke billows over Lakeside Apartments
Thick smoke billows over Lakeside Apartments on Sunday, as residents were evacuated from the complex. Residents of Lakeside and Watlers Road were allowed to return to their homes on Tuesday evening. - Photo: Taneos Ramsay

For several Lakeside residents, the fear and drama sparked by the most recent landfill fire was nothing short of biblical proportions.

“I thought it was something out of a movie, it looked and felt apocalyptic, almost end-of-days-like,” said Emily Hewson, who has lived at Lakeside with her husband for three months. “The flames were so high you could see them above the trees and there were loud explosions as well.”

The fire originated from atop the solid waste mound, sometime after 2:30pm on Sunday, 8 March. Strong gusts of winds exceeding 20 knots caused the fire to spread, eventually making its way downhill to a stockpile of tyres. Once ignited, the tyre and solid-waste fires belched out thick plumes of black smoke which travelled directly over the Lakeside apartments, raining down ash and burning debris.

“I was also at home when I saw the smoke and thought, ‘oh well, the landfill was on fire – again’.” said Bibiana Butasova, who lives in a unit facing the landfill. “I looked out through my kitchen window and saw what looked like a sea of people just watching the fire and standing in the smoke. It was thick and choking.”

The ferocity of the fire forced officers to shut down the section of the Esterley Tibbetts Highway between the landfill and the Lakeside complex. Within hours, a mandatory evacuation order was given for all Lakeside residents. While a cautionary evacuation notice was given for residents living in smoke-affected areas of Watlers Drive community.

“We rushed home. When we got inside, there was a hole in the door so there was smoke everywhere,” said Hewson. “We got our dog, a few personal items and then left. But we are new to the island and didn’t know where to go or where to stay.”

Hazard Management Cayman Islands opened two shelters, the first, the newly renovated Red Cross building on Huldah Avenue in George Town, and, the second, a pet-friendly shelter at the John Gray High School gymnasium. While some people were able to take advantage of the shelters, Suzanne Reynolds and her family had to look elsewhere.

“At about 5:30pm, an officer came to our door and told us we had to leave. My husband and I have a special needs son, so the shelter just wasn’t an ideal place for us,” said Reynolds. “Although we had a few offers, they just were not ideal for our son. So we rang around and eventually got a hotel room for about $200 a night.”

The fire burned for more than four days. Once the flames died down and the smoke plumes were significantly reduced, the all-clear was given for Lakeside residents to return to their homes. Upon arrival, several residents learnt the premises were simply uninhabitable.

“Although there was no fire damage, the smoke got in to everywhere,” said Laura Lesseus. “I was upset when I got back home because there was smoke still bellowing, and I could smell smoke everywhere. I’m worried about smoke inhalation because cancer runs in my family, and so I have had to move.”

“I’ve checked every day since they said we could go back, and the smoke is so thick that we just can’t stay,” said Reynolds.

“I’m frustrated at the lack of information that we’ve been given,” said Hewson. “I’m also disappointed with the safety issues of the apartment and I would like to know why the all-clear was given despite the smoke damage.”

Cayman Compass received a copy of a message sent out to the residents of Lakeside which reads, “Attached is an information sheet that with two companies who have offered their services for cleaning and air purification, etc. Kindly note, should you opt to contact them and have your unit cleaned, it will be at your own expense.”

The message goes on to tell residents that the staff of the Lakeside complex would “continue to work at the West Bay office as the smoke on the property is still quite intense”.

The living conditions at the complex have left several of the residents “frustrated and searching for answers” while they try to piece their lives back together.

Cayman Compass reached out to the Lakeside complex management. They declined to comment.

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