Ontario fire deaths hit near-record level amid pandemic

·3 min read

Fire deaths in Ontario soared to near-record levels during the first year of the pandemic, spiking in the coldest stretch of this winter to levels not seen in more than 20 years.

In the aftermath, investigators have noticed a worrisome trend: no working smoke alarms, mandatory in Ontario for almost 50 years, in about one-third of the deadly fires.

“Too often we investigate fatal fires where there are no working smoke alarms,” said Kristy Denette, a spokesperson for the Ontario Fire Marshal’s Office.

“Collectively, we need to do better and take fire safety seriously.”

The provincial office, which oversees fire investigations, stops short of blaming the run of deadly fires on the virus crisis, with millions of people cooped up more often at home. But those are factors some say only increase the risk of fires from common sources such as cooking.

The toll taken by residential fires was underlined this week by a devastating house fire in Oshawa that killed two men and two children, and in an apartment fire two weeks ago in West Lorne, where a 38-year-old woman’s body was found the morning after in the charred ruins.

In London, a 56-year-old man died last month in a fire at a townhouse near Kipps Lane where there was no working smoke alarm.

Provincewide, 114 people died in fires last year, up 35 per cent from a 10-year average beforehand and nearly double the toll from 2019.

The figures cover all kinds of fires, including those involving buildings and vehicles, but the vast majority involve residences.

The worst year on record in Ontario was 2001, with 119 fire deaths.

Already this year, Ontario is reporting 42 fire deaths. Thirty-two people died in fires in January and February, the highest toll for those two months since 1998.

“We do not have any evidence that the pandemic is responsible for more fires, but this is being monitored by the Office of the Fire Marshal,” Denette wrote in an email, adding fire deaths often fluctuate from year to year.

In January and February, there were 65 fires in London, up from 41 in the same period last year.

Matt Hepditch, London’s deputy fire chief in charge of prevention, said the pandemic is at least partly to blame for more fires, with more people spending more time at home. That means more cooking and heavier use of household appliances — both factors that can cause fires.

Fires from cooking left unattended are the biggest culprit, Hepditch said.

“That seems to be regular and very consistent in the city right now,” he said. “I can’t stress enough how important it is to not leave cooking unattended.”

Hepditch said he’s also noticed a rise in smoke alarm violations.

“There have been several fires in the city where there are no working smoke alarms or smoke alarms have been taken down for some reason,” he said.

Denette said fire deaths tend to be higher in the winter, with heating-related fires more common then.

Cooking, careless smoking and electrical failure are the leading causes of fires.

Ontario’s death rate from fires has fallen dramatically since smoke alarms were made mandatory in 1975, plunging from 30.9 deaths per million people in 1980 to 7.8 deaths per million last year, government figures show.

Even at that, however, last year’s death rate was up from 4.6 deaths per million people the year before.

The Ontario law on smoke alarms was beefed up in 2006 to require fire detection devices on every floor of a dwelling and outside all sleeping areas. Offenders can be ticked $360 or fined up to $50,000, double that for corporations.

Carbon monoxide detectors, to alert people to poisonous gas emitted from fuel-burning appliances such as furnaces, are also required in all Ontario residences built after 2001. A law making them mandatory was enacted after a Woodstock family died of carbon monoxide poisoning in 2008.



Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press