Hamilton blaze that killed 4: fire marshal confirms lack of working smoke alarm


Published January 3, 2023 at 4:08 pm

Hamilton fire update
The residence at 14 Derby St. (Peter Power, The Canadian Press)

The Hamilton Mountain townhouse unit where two adults and two children were killed in a fire last week had no working smoke alarm, and the blaze started in a couch on the main floor.

Ontario Fire Marshal Jon Pegg and Hamilton Fire Chief David Cunliffe spoke Tuesday (Jan. 3) about the investigation into the horrific fire at 14 Derby St., in which two other people were injured. Pegg confirmed that the dwelling did not have a working smoke alarm, which contravenes the Ontario fire code and might bear legal ramifications for the building’s owner.

While the origin of the fire is established, the cause remains under investigation. Pegg tied the tragedy to trends where fire-related deaths in Ontario are at a two-decade high.

“As was initially reported, there were no working smoke alarms,” Pegg said in a media conference. “It began in an upholstered sofa on the ground floor. All occupants were on the second floor. The location of the fire, and the configuration of the residence, blocked their ability to exit through the stairwell.

“The investigation continues, and it is a very in-depth process,” Pegg added. “I wish I was standing here under better circumstances. It is a tough end to 2022, for the family, the community, and the first responders who will bear witness to this for their entire lives.”

Pegg added that 2022 was “incredibly troubling” in terms of the number of fire fatalities.

“Over the past year, we had 133 fire-related deaths — that’s the highest total in more than 20 years in Ontario,” he said. “One in three happen in November, December and January, and a high percentage are in a home without a smoke alarm.

The fire marshal added, “If there is one point I can leave you with, it is the need to have a working alarm, and a solid escape plan… have two means of egress (exit) from the second floor, whether that’s going out on to the roof or having a ladder to get down. Make a plan. Quiz your kids on it.

“The part I don’t ever want to see again is a fatality,” Pegg said. “Fires will occur, but we don’t need to be losing families and children who had just experienced Christmas.”

By the time Hamilton Fire Department crews arrived at 14 Derby St. at 11:10 p.m. on Dec. 29, there was a fully involved fire with heavy smoke and fire from both the front and rear of the unit.

The four people who died were treated by Hamilton firefighters and paramedics and were pronounced dead at the hospital. Their names will be released following a coroner’s investigation. The exact nature of the family relationship is not yet known.

The gutted home is in a townhouse complex in the area of Upper Gage and Rymal on the Mountain. Chief Cunliffe, speaking for the Hamilton Fire Department, said that the owner of a dwelling is responsible for seeing that smoke alarms are in working condition. But the responsibility of civil or criminal consequences rests with the City of Hamilton and Hamilton Police.

Hamilton had nearly 250 structure fires in ’22

Last Friday, HFD firefighters circulated in the affected area and found numerous homes whose carbon monoxide (CO2) and smoke alarms were inactive.

“After we have a fire like this, we often try to engage with the residents to check on safety,” Cunliffe said. “Last Friday, we replaced 19 smoke alarms, two CO2 alarms, and one battery while engaging with 41 residents.

“I am absolutely concerned about the trends we are seeing,” Cunliffe added. “Last year in Hamilton, we had 247 structure fires, and quite frankly, unattended cooking and smoking materials (that are not properly discarded) are the two leading causes. We think these things are behaviourally based, and that needs to change.”

All of the materials removed from the unit will be part of a forensics investigation that will determine the cause of the fire that claimed four lives and irreparably altered others. Pegg explained that the amount of plastic that a couch or sofa contains contributes to cutting the amount of time that people have to escape a housefire.

“People believe that you have five minutes from the time the smoke alarm goes off,” Pegg said. “In reality, you have 60 seconds or less.”

That also applies to the timelines for firefighters who are trying to evacuate people and knock down a blaze.

“Compared to 20 to 25 years ago, the amount of plastics in building materials today is unprecedented,” Pegg said. “It produces a black, black smoke that chokes you in seconds. At the start of my career, we used to have a 20-minute rule for going into a burning structure. That’s to minutes due to the chemistry of what is being burned.”

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