Ontario's Fire Marshal urged residents to ensure they have working smoke alarms and thought-out escape plans Tuesday after the province recorded its highest number of fire-related deaths in more than 20 years.
Jon Pegg said there were 133 fire-related deaths in Ontario last year, including the loss of young children and families in several communities, and that a "very high percentage" of fatalities happen in homes without working smoke alarms.
"We don't need to be losing families. We certainly don't need to be losing able bodied children who just made it through Christmas, looking forward to New Year's. It literally breaks my heart," he said.
Pegg provided the year-end statistics at a news conference where he told reporters there were no working smoke alarms in a Hamilton townhouse fire last week that killed four people, including two children.
Police have said they were called to help with the fire in southeast Hamilton late Thursday night and found six people inside who were taken to hospital.
Two adults and two children were later pronounced dead after firefighters pulled them from the second floor of the house, while two other adults were in stable condition as of early Friday morning.
The location of the fire and the layout of the house blocked the victims' ability to descend down the stairwell, said Pegg.
If a smoke alarm had gone off on the main floor of the house where the fire was, Pegg believes "there's a very good chance the family could have escaped down that stairwell."
Pegg said the on-scene portion of his office's investigation is complete and confirmed the fire's origin as an upholstered sofa in the house's living room on the ground floor, though its cause is still being investigated.
"Trying to figure out exactly what ignited is the next stage of our investigation. That does involve forensics and fire modelling," he said.
Hamilton Fire Chief David Cunliffe said the department is working with the city's legal team to pursue charges against the owner of the townhome for failing to have a working smoke alarm.
"When you see the types of numbers that we're seeing and the severity of the fires that we're seeing today, this is not something that people can be complacent about," said Cunliffe. "We need to make sure that people take this seriously."
Officials did not confirm the victims' identities, the relation between them or details about the other two people who survived, but said those details will eventually be released once confirmed.
Pegg urged Ontarians to make sure they have working smoke alarms and have well-thought out and practised home fire escape plans prepared to prevent similar deaths.
"I'm standing here as the fire marshal of Ontario, as a father, and as someone who's been on scene of fatal fires far too many times and I'm pleading with each and every one of you," he said.
Pegg's office previously said the number of fire fatalities in the province fluctuated between 72 and 104 deaths per year between 2010 and 2019, before rising to 115 in 2020 and 124 in 2021.
Statistics show that one in three fire deaths occur during the months of November, December and January, he said.
On average, Ontarians incorrectly believe they have more than five minutes to escape a fire when in reality, they likely have 60 seconds or less once the smoke alarm sounds, he added.
"Doing the bare minimum can mean the difference in living to see another day," Pegg said.
"Please take the very basic steps and prevent a fire death. Go check your smoke alarms now. It only takes seconds."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 3, 2023.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Tyler Griffin, The Canadian Press