An elderly woman had to be pulled to safety from the balcony of a burning apartment building in Maple Ridge in a rescue fire officials describe as one of the closest calls they’ve ever witnessed.

Crews arrived at the burning building in the 2200-block of 122 Avenue just after 6 a.m. Saturday after hearing reports of a loud explosion followed by several reports of a fire. By the time they got there, it had already turned into a two-alarm blaze that required reinforcements.

Heavy smoke forced firefighters to rescue residents trapped on the first floor of the building using ladders, but then, things took a turn for the worse.

“We heard a small voice yell for help, and it turns out there was a victim on the third floor,” said Maple Ridge Fire Chief Dane Spence. “The unit was on fire and she had collapsed on the balcony.”

Spence made the split-second decision to send a crew to rescue the woman. She was pulled to safety in the nick of time.

“In my 30 years of doing this, this was the most harrowing rescue that I have ever seen,” he said. “Firefighters literally, flames were licking at their backs as they carried the lady over the balcony and on to the ladder and down the stairs.”

The woman is now recovering in hospital.

Officials haven’t confirmed the cause of the blaze, but say it might not have gotten out of control if sprinklers had been installed in the aged building.

The fire left dozens of people homeless, and emergency services are providing some with temporary housing.

The extent of the damage is unknown.

With a report from CTV Vancouver's Tom Popyk