Spate of condo blazes sparks safety campaign

Edmonton Fire hopes to raise awareness around a perennial risk in multi-res buildings
Tuesday, November 24, 2015
By Michelle Ervin

Shortly before 5 p.m. on Friday, May 22, 2015, tenants on the west side of the Avenue complex at 301 Clareview Station Dr. W. noticed the flames. At 4:47 p.m., dispatch sent Edmonton Fire Rescue Services to the four-storey condominium. On arrival, first responders found the building fully engulfed from the exterior.

Three hours later, six pump trucks, five ladder trucks, three rescue trucks and one tanker truck manned by 60 firefighters, three district chiefs and 15 units had managed to bring the blaze under control. No one was seriously injured, but before the three-alarm fire could be extinguished, it caused $16.3-million in property damage, destroying the building and displacing roughly 300 residents.

The fire is one in a spate of condo blazes in Alberta — all caused by improperly disposed of cigarettes — that has reignited conversations about the perennial fire safety risk in multi-residential buildings. Most notably, Edmonton Fire Rescue Services, along with Alberta Municipal Affairs, has launched a public safety campaign dubbed Stub it Right, Don’t Ignite.

“It seems very innocent that you drop your butt into a planter, or think that you’ve extinguished it, and walk away from it,” says Edmonton Fire Chief Ken Block, “and two or three or four hours later, it ignites into an open flame and the result can be catastrophic.”

The campaign responds to a roughly decade-long rise in the occurrence of fires linked to improperly disposed of smoking materials, explains Chief Block. He attributes the upward trend to large, four-storey residential complexes built in the 2000s.

Alberta’s largest single-loss fire, which caused $23-million in damage to multiple residences, prompted changes to the province’s fire code in 2007. The some 400 large, multi-residential, wood-frame buildings constructed before the new standards took effect remain especially prone to fires caused by improperly disposed of smoking materials.

Though the Stub it Right, Don’t Ignite campaign is geared toward the public in broad terms, it will also take specific steps to target these most vulnerable buildings.

Edmonton Fire will be calling on condo associations to either declare their building smoking or non-smoking. Smoking buildings will be required to provide commercial grade receptacles on all balconies — likely beginning in 2016 — or risk facing a fine under city fire code bylaws. Non-smoking buildings will be required to post non-smoking signs on all balconies.

Before these measures are rolled out, Edmonton Fire will be consulting with condo associations.

Edmonton is not alone in its efforts to stamp out the fire hazard caused by improper disposal of smoking materials. Peter Derrington, deputy chief, Toronto Fire Services Public Education, describes it as a “significant problem,” and a perplexing one at that. Technically, he explains, it’s not illegal under the Ontario Fire Code to flick a cigarette butt off a balcony.

Where Toronto Fire Services does have some capacity to intervene is in cases of combustible materials stored on balconies — which is essentially kindling if a cigarette butt blows back onto a balcony or neighbouring building.

These two factors can create a perfect storm for a fire to ignite and cause significant damage, which is precisely what happened in 2010 at 200 Wellesley St. E. in Toronto. The blaze resulted in the injury of 17 people and significant property loss at the 30-storey, 711-unit apartment building.

Derrington cites section 2.4 of the Ontario Fire Code, which prohibits combustible waste materials in and around buildings to accumulate in amounts or locations where they pose a fire hazard.

“The only problem we have with that is that it does address combustible waste materials, so you look at waste — what is waste?” he says. “It’s not cut and dry and certain portions of the code do not apply to a dwelling unit, so that’s also something that we have to be aware of.”

The Fire Prevention Act also empowers local fire departments to order the removal of materials, though it doesn’t guarantee they will.

“It is very common to have some form of combustible material on the balcony,” says Derrington. “If somebody had a patio set and they had a mattress pad on a chaise lounge, that can be combustible, but then we have to look at: Is it an unusual situation that poses a significant risk that we would have to address?”

When Toronto Fire Services distributes and presents educational information to residents groups, it attacks the risk from both angles.

One, residents need to understand how to properly dispose of cigarettes from balconies — in a deep, non-combustible ashtray. Two, residents need to understand that balconies are intended for outdoor living and therefore suitable for patio furniture and plants. They are not suitable for storage — they do not require sprinklers as storage lockers do.

An emerging concern for Derrington is the declining acceptance of smokers in the home. Though positive, it has had the unintended consequence of pushing smokers out of the home.

“Not that we want people smoking inside, either, but I think that’s a current trend that will potentially result in an increase [in these types of incidents],” he says. “If there is a smoker, they’re being kicked outside, which in a high-rise building may be a balcony, and then what they’re doing is of course tossing the cigarette off the balcony, and I think that’s causing problems.”

Stacey Kurck, vice president of Harmony Management, can attest to the “constant problem” of cigarettes improperly disposed of from balconies. Between the 58 condo buildings her firm manages, Kurck estimates that management staff send out a notice to residents at least once a month. During warm weather, the notices can be as frequent as once a week, she says.

A recent notice alerted residents to “numerous incidents,” cautioned about the dangers of cigarettes discarded from balconies and asked anyone with information to contact management or police. In one case, the management firm drove home the message with photos of damage to a building across the street caused by a balcony fire ignited by a cigarette.

Unless cigarette butts are found on the common elements, it is normally resident complaints that trigger these reminders, says Kurck. Depending on the way a building is designed, the culprit can be tricky to pin down. Her firm posts notices on a web portal and in the elevators, only distributing paper notices as necessary.

“If the unit on the 11th floor is complaining, then we’ll go door-to-door on that side of the unit, to all the units above it,” she says.

Resolving the issue usually requires repeat notices, especially in heavily tenanted buildings. In one building where the problem was particularly acute, the board offered residents complimentary buckets of sands for use as balcony ashtrays, which saw some uptake, says Kurck.

Back in Edmonton, Fire Chief Ken Block is bringing together various stakeholders to address the problematic features of the city’s buildings constructed before the 2007 Alberta Fire Code change. Potential answers might include building balconies with sprinklers and non-combustible siding.

The current vinyl siding in wide use has a low combustion level, he explains, causing fires emanating from balconies to spread so rapidly that firefighters don’t have time to effectively intervene. Instead, they are forced to simply protect exposures.

(Ontario recently lifted its height limit on wood-frame construction from four storeys to six, but with additional safety provisions attached. These provision include requirements for sprinklers on all balconies measuring more than 610 millimetres in depth and combustion-resistant or non-combustible exterior cladding and roof covering.)

Chief Block says the strongest safeguard against the risk posed by improperly disposed of cigarettes would be smoke-free buildings. But he adds that it isn’t the only fire hazard on balconies — barbecues are another big one — which is why education is so important.

“We need to improve the status quo or we can expect to relive these significant events over and over again, and that would be a shame…” says Chief Block. “We’ve been very fortunate in that there’s been no loss of life yet from one of these types of events.

“That Clareview situation, that happened around the dinner hour, around 5 o’clock. If that event happened at 3 or 4 in the morning, the potential for a very different outcome troubles me.”

Michelle Ervin is the editor of CondoBusiness.

One thought on “Spate of condo blazes sparks safety campaign

  1. I am a special investigator presently contracted to a large insurance company in Calgary. I am a forensic expert in fire investigation and I have studied many of the fires in Alberta (and across the country). This article is somewhat accurate about the causes of many of these fires, however, the important point that is being missed is that the cost of these fires (and danger to lives) has more to do with the spread of the fire, as opposed to the originating cause. We may reduce the cause of the fires occurring, however, we will never eliminate human error and these fires will continue to occur (albeit less often). More emphasis needs to be on stopping the rapid spread of the fire – If a balcony fire occurs, it should be a $50,000 balcony fire – NOT an $18 million dollar building fire!

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