Landlord in fatal fire case won't inspect electrical systems at other properties

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Smoking materials caused Lower Sackville fire that killed 3 people

A Lower Sackville, N.S., landlord who owns the building that was the scene of a fatal electrical fire March 3 says he sees "no reason" to do an inspection in nearby properties he owns where similar electrical work was done.

Clem Chisholm told CBC News that electrical work was done between September and December 2017 on eight properties he owns in the Lower Sackville neighbourhood, including the property at 34 Leaside Dr. where three members of the same family lost their lives.

Chisholm said the work involved replacing existing 100-amp electrical panels with 200-amp panels and having Nova Scotia Power run new wires from the street to the house.

​Chisholm said he had a permit for the work. When asked whether his electrician had a licence, he responded:

"What do you think? I'm not going to answer that question, because it doesn't need answering," he said.

In a later statement by email, Chisholm wrote, "Before work commenced, a permit was obtained from Nova Scotia Power by a qualified electrician. All work that has been completed has been inspected by Nova Scotia Power."

Over the weekend, CBC contacted Nova Scotia Power to attempt to confirm this. On Monday, the utility said it could not say whether an inspection was done or if a permit was issued for the work, because it is considered confidential customer information.

City urges inspection

Halifax Regional Fire still has an open investigation into the fatal fire, which it announced one week ago was caused by an electrical fault that was not suspicious in nature. Chisholm disputed this and said Halifax Regional Fire has told him the cause is "accidental and unclassified."

At this point in the investigation, the city has no power to order an inspection of the other buildings' electrical systems.

However, according to a Halifax Regional Fire spokesperson, deputy fire Chief Roy Hollett spoke to Chisholm by telephone on Thursday and urged him to get an independent electrician to do an inspection of the work in the other buildings as a precaution.

Investigators cannot yet say exactly where in the electrical system the fault happened, or the direct cause of the fault, said Halifax Regional Fire spokesperson Brendan Elliott.

However, the city has never veered from its assessment that the cause of the fatal fire came from somewhere within the electrical system of the duplex.

"In fact, we came out as early as we did because we were confident we knew what the cause of the fire was," said Elliott on Friday evening.

On Friday afternoon, Chisholm emailed all his tenants and asked them to voluntarily turn off their main breakers and call Nova Scotia Power to request to be disconnected, for safety reasons.

CBC confirmed with two families that they received the email. They found it confusing and worrisome, but did not disconnect their power.

About three hours later, Chisholm emailed his tenants again and told them he had received new information from Halifax Regional Fire stating the cause of the fire at 34 Leaside was not electrical, and therefore they could reconnect their power.

The fire department denies telling him that.

Chisholm acknowledged he talked to the deputy fire chief Thursday, but told CBC he does not plan to get an electrician to do an inspection.

"If I had reason to suspect that there was a problem, yes, but we have no reason to suspect that there's a problem," he said.

Chisholm said when he's told what the cause of the fire is, he will take "appropriate action."

Chisholm called the reporting on the cause of the fire "media hype" and "less than accurate," and said the media had misinterpreted the fire department's findings. He wants Halifax Regional Fire to provide him with more information on the fire's cause.

"What I wanted from Halifax Regional Fire was, OK, what caused the problem? Could it happen in another house? And what have we got to do to fix it? That information was not forthcoming," said Chisholm.

'I don't know what more you think I should be doing'

He also cited a phone call from a Halifax Regional Fire investigator, but he declined to give their name.

"They've since called me back and categorically confirmed that they have not determined there to be an electrical problem. I don't know what more you think I should be doing," he said.

Halifax Regional Fire has denied giving Chisholm this information.

By email, Chisholm expressed condolences to the family affected by the March 3 fire, and said it was the first incident he has had since becoming a landlord in 1974. He described himself and his wife as "concerned and proactive about the health and safety of [our] tenants."

'It wouldn't hurt for an electrician to come in'

Christa Pickles and her family live in another duplex owned by Chisholm, and had the same electrical work done. She's concerned for the safety of her four children, including her seven-month-old baby, and she said tenants in the buildings have been confused by the developments of the last few days.

"I'm sure that Clem is just looking out for his tenants and doesn't want anybody else to get hurt," she said, but added that she would feel better if someone took an expert look at her home.

"It wouldn't hurt for an electrician to come in," she said. "Who's to say that the mistake that could have been made over there wasn't made in anybody else's house? It doesn't hurt to get a second opinion."

Elliott said the fire department has already given that same advice to Chisholm.

"If he is genuinely concerned about the safety of his tenants, there are hundreds of electricians that will come in after hours and will be more than happy to do investigations and inspections of wiring in a building," said Elliott.

"So, if he's really that concerned, he should do the right thing and bring in electricians to make sure the properties are safe."

Elliott added that for tenants like Pickles, the city would "never recommend" turning off the main breaker.

"What we would encourage them to do is go out and buy some $10 or $12 smoke alarms and place them in correct places throughout their house, if they're concerned, and follow up with their landlord," he said.