Mark Clairmont | MuskokaTODAY.com
GRAVENHURST — The home where a woman died last week in a multiplex fire had not been inspected by the fire department, says the town’s new fire chief.
Nor had it a “history of complaints or enquiries,” says the incoming CAO.
Mayor Paul Kelly was even unaware of the home before visiting it the morning after the fire.
And there were no visits by building inspectors, planning staff, bylaw and or property standards officials, which would have warranted further investigation that some think may have prevented the tragedy.
Town officials admit to being more reactive than proactive on inspections.
“My understanding is that we don’t have a history of complaints or enquiries with this particular property,” said Scott Lucas, who takes over as town manager at the end of October.
“My understanding is that we don’t have much history with this property really at all.
“Our general philosophy is to focus very heavily on the public education piece. Articulate clearly that if there are issues, then certainly call us and we have our legal and moral obligations to follow up on those,” he said.
Including public reports the morning after the fire of only one exit where the middle-of-the-night blaze is believed to have started on the front porch leaving six families homeless.
The Ontario Fire Marshal (OFM) and OPP are still investigating and have not released the cause, which have some tenants and neighbours openly claiming it was “arson.”
They allege the porch was fire-bombed.
Fire Chief Jared Cayley says “no, there were no inspections” by his department of the five-unit apartment complex at First and David streets that claimed the life of Erica Curtis-Nickason, 49.
And he “couldn’t even hazard a guess as to the cause.”
As well, Cayley said “couldn’t even begin to speculate” on whether there were working smoke detectors as the law requires.
Justin Curtis, whose wife died in the fire, said he heard no fire alarms.
Cayley said, like everyone, he is “very keen to get some answers back.”
When asked why such an obvious site with property issues was not visited, the director of fire and emergency services said that under the Ontario Fire Protection and Fire Act inspections are done “based on requests or complaints.”
He blamed a lack of local inspectors.
Gravenhurst has just one fulltime inspector, Kevin McKelvey, who was only hired this year three months before Cayley took over in May.
McKelvey replaced Breyan Sinnott, who replaced long-time prevention officer Rob King.
King is now with the OFM as an instructor, said Cayley.
And former fire chief Larry Brassard also works with the OFM. His LinkedIn page says he heads up half their investigations team.
Neither of those two former Gravenhurst firefighters are involved in the current OFM investigation, according to Cayley.
On May 5, when Cayley was first on the job, McKelvey issued a release saying two building owners in town had been fined $5,000 and $10,000 each for fire code violations dating back to 2019.
Cayley said while smoke detectors are mandatory in all homes and businesses “we don’t have the authority to go into every home.”
LTCs, retirement homes and schools are among provincially-mandated sites the fire departments must inspect.
Cayley, who spent 13 hours straight at the scene, said there’s really nothing firefighters could have done to prevent this “tragedy.”
He stressed “human behaviour” is often to blame.
“It depends on the fire department’s level of resources.
“So if we receive a complaint from an individual who is a resident of one of these places, then we will go in and do an inspection.
“It all comes down to manpower. So with one (inspector) doing it and keeping up with all the complaints and requests, we don’t get into all the places that we may need to.”
Speaking from the fire scene last Thursday — “I’m actually on site now speaking with the OFM investigators” — Cayley said: “From an inspection standpoint we get into as many as we can. We do get a lot of requests and complaints for these types of residences.
“But we want to stress is that inspection or no, it’s human behaviour in a lot of these cases. So those are things we can’t fix with inspections.”
That was the message the fire department put out in a release Wednesday, a day after the fire.
Said Cayley: “We’ll go in places and inspect them and as soon as we leave smoke alarms are removed.
“That’s the message I’m trying to get through. That no matter how many buildings are inspected — even if I had a thousand fire inspectors — it’s human behaviour that we need to work on. We need to have people install smoke alarms, to have fire escape plans.
“Unfortunately those things we can’t control with inspections or fines. We just have to appeal to people’s common sense and their better nature to take responsibility.”
He said while smoke detectors are mandatory in every home “we don’t have the authority to go into every home.
“That’s why we tend to stay away. It’s not passing the buck. Not every police officer goes up to every car and sees if someone’s wearing a seatbelt. And that’s been the law for years.
“We just have to keep trying, and unfortunately this incident is a high-profile incident and we have to use it as an opportunity to remind folks that — again without knowing what caused it — we have to take advantage of this and take some good out of a tragedy. And hope we can promote other people to take steps to provide for their own safety.”
A day after the fire, the town did issue a media release to the community as a reminder about the importance of smoke detectors.
Two days after the death, the fire department did a similar door-drop of the neighbourhood surrounding First Street.
It contained a three-page safety letter and a door knocker stating ‘IT’S THE LAW’ for landlords, tenants, homeowners, businesses and everyone to install smoke detectors.
Cayley said: “We did send our Fire Prevention Officer and Public Education Officer out to the neighbourhood around the site of the recent tragic fire.
“We call it an after the fire program. We focus on the surrounding area of a fire, or other event, to bring to front of mind things that we can do as citizens to protect ourselves and families from hazards such as fire.”
“As with all residences and buildings across town,” said Lucas, “we really try to emphasize the overall public education piece and often the enforcement piece is based on a complaint-based system. Or cases will receive questions or enquiries from tenants as well.”
Lucas who is Gravenhurst’s director of community growth and development, a former planning director overseeing the building department and once interim CAO, said: “Interestingly, we’re often accused of being a bit more overzealous, as far as the enforcement side of things.”
He said: “We don’t necessarily have any indication that anything wasn’t up to code.
“Of course all of that sits with the fire marshal’s office investigation as to cause.”
Asked if drive-by of the property during the pandemic shouldn’t have raised red flags, Lucas replied: “I’ve certainly been down that road often enough.”
But he said “we’re certainly not resourced to do home-by-home, door-to-door assessments. Again we rely on that complaint-based system.
“Often times owners will call in and order an inspection.”
And “a transfer of home ownership is often where things get caught.”
While there was an upgrade of the porch the past few years, Lucas said that may not have required a permit or site visit.
“The primary focus,” he said, “is on the structure you’ve applied for a permit for. And clearly if there’s something that’s extraordinarily out of compliance that’s recognizable then it’s pointed out.
“For a porch permit you wouldn’t normally be going in the home.”
Lucas said the property standards department would now be taking a look at the site as a result of the fire.
“Typically there is a property standards order applied to clean up the property.”
He said “as far I know there wasn’t a whole lot of previous property standards investigations on this property.”
Asked about public concerns for the stressed state of the property and why the town didn’t address that, Lucas said: “It’s a question of what do you mean by addressed?
“Without a full understanding of the cause of the fire I’m not sure there was anything that would necessarily have been inspected or not or what would have led to that.
“So we’re sort of missing that key piece of information.”
As to the fire chief’s lament about a lack of resources to deal with inspections, Lucas said: “I don’t know that we’re necessarily — the system we’re working under is the complaint-based system.
“There’s been several occasions where Andy Jones our chief building official — who is well-versed in the fire protection act — will be in looking at a building permit and will recognize something and advise the fire prevention officer.
“For the most part we’re resourced based on a complaint system. So I don’t know that we’re under-resourced based on that philosophy and enforcement, which is pretty common for municipalities of our size.
“But these things take a lot of time, follow-up and compliance. Some people don’t necessarily have an appreciation for the process, because it costs money to fix stuff. So it’s often a long, arduous process.
“In many occasions it results in court proceedings to try and get some action. These aren’t usually quick fixes.”
Huntsville has been pro-active in sending firefighters door-to-door with safety information, notably last week after an incident there where a ban on day-time burning led to a structure fire.
Lucas added: “At the end of the day we focus an incredible amount of effort on public education and getting our volunteers out there to try and educate people. … And get faces out there on the street.”
Also, while the property is well known to police, Lucas said the town “hasn’t had had any liaising with the OPP about anything to do with the property previously.”
Cayley said the OFM will find out if there were smoke detectors and if so whether they were working — or had batteries as many often don’t.
He said the fire marshal will “only report on what they do or don’t find. There will be no inferences made in the report.
“Hopefully the OFM can get to the bottom of this and we can take whatever positive we can out of it and prevent it down the road.”
So will the building have to come down?
Cayley doesn’t know.
“If I had to make a guess, I’d say maybe.”
But that it will be up to the building department who Cayley assumes will be working with the owner’s insurance company.
“They’ll make that call.”
The property is now secured by Winmar property restoration services with an almost seven-foot fence around the front and south side of the building.
The chief also said he doesn’t yet have a dollar estimate on the cost of the lost building.
A large floral and photo tribute in memory of Curtis-Nickason remains on the street corner next to a yellow fire hydrant.
Firefighters on scene in ‘seven minutes’
Cayley added that resident and neighbourhood concerns about fire response times also were misplaced.
“Soon as we were dispatched we were on scene in seven minutes. We were here really quick.
“We’re a fully trained professional volunteer fire service. We had two trucks on scene within minutes of the call.”
But he understands and empathizes with them.
“Absolutely. I’ve been there myself. I’ve been in the fire service for 18 years. And I’ve been at scenes as a civilian when you’re at something and you’re helping someone — it does seem like an immense amount of time passes. And you step back and realize that it’s minutes.
“I sympathize with those folks. I mean these people are neighbours trying to help neighbours. I would never armchair quarterback somebody in a crisis situation.”
He tells his firefighters: “If we can take something awful and tragic like this and we can propel this forward with a message that will maybe prevent it down the road, that’s our No. 1 job.”
Cayley said there’s “something we’ve got to stress — not speaking specifically to this call — but people need to not hesitate to call firefighters.
“Even if you think someone else has called 911, you should call 911 just to make sure.”
Asked about the use of the Bracebridge Fire Department’s aerial ladder, Cayley said Gravenhurst Fire requested its assistance “as backup” and put it to good use as soon as it arrived.
And why an aerial ladder to fight a two-storey building?
“Aerial apparatus just adds so much versatility,” said Cayley. “Water is one thing.”
But the ladder lets firefighters “get water into pockets” they couldn’t reach with ground hoses.
“Not to mention if you need to get high to get someone out.”
As happened the following afternoon when the victim’s body was removed through her second-floor apartment window.
Cayley said he’s “excited” for Gravenhurst Fire to get their new ladder truck “in late February or early March” after decades of lobbying a half-dozen councils.
“That’s the anticipated date.”
At a cost of “a little over $1.8 million.”
He said it will be a little higher with 100-foot platform, rather than the 75-foot ladder that Bracebridge has. And it will also have a bucket at the top with two powerful deck gun hoses and room for firefighters (equipped with breathable airlines) to train more water on the fire and if necessary get on to a roof with a traditional hand-line.
“It’s going to be really fantastic.”
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