Fires are burning hotter and faster, firefighters say. That means residents have only minutes to escape
It took mere minutes for the fire to rip through Erin Watson’s home in Hamilton last month and destroy everything.
The only reason she didn’t perish, she said, was because of her dog Jack.
According to fire officials, these types of structural fires — those originating from the inside — are burning hotter and faster than ever before, because buildings and contents are increasingly made from synthetics and petroleum-based products.
In Watson’s case, her harrowing experience was on Jan. 17. She was baking muffins when her four-year-old rough collie became distressed, pawing at her leg and whining at the front door, trying to push it open with his head.
A smoke alarm on the main floor went off and Watson said she saw smoke curling up the stairs from the basement laundry room. She ran down and found patches of fire seemingly everywhere.
“Fire was just dripping from the ceiling all around me,” Watson said. “I just stood there in shock. The dog started to get very upset and cry at me. He got me clued in that I needed to run.”
The smoke had thickened and Watson said she couldn’t see or breathe, but Jack guided her up the stairs and pushed her out of the house.
“We ran out with the fire coming up right behind us,” Watson said.
She said it was so hot that her silver nail polish melted off her toes. She got out with seconds to spare.
“The whole thing just went up in a blaze and I would have been trapped downstairs.”
Her husband John returned home soon after to find Watson and Jack shivering out front, covered in soot, and the sky a greyish-yellow from toxic smoke. Their rental home of 10 years that also housed an insurance business in a separate unit was still burning.
“You could just smell the plastic and chemical burn of everything,” said Watson.
Watson’s hair and Jack’s tail were left singed, but otherwise, the pair were unharmed. Watson’s two teenage girls were safe at school. However, they lost all their possessions and their two cats remain missing.
With the family now living elsewhere until they find a new home, an online fundraiser has been set up to help them rebuild their lives.
John said he knows how lucky they are.
“It could’ve turned into a nightmare instantly because instead of everyone getting out … it could’ve been so much worse,” he said.
Number of fire-related fatalities up across Ontario
In an interview, Hamilton fire Chief Dave Cunliffe said the blaze at Watson’s home exemplifies how fierce and fast fires have become.
In her case, the flames started in the basement and quickly spread into the walls and ceilings, then the roof. The business run out of the front of the building was also destroyed, but its employees escaped unharmed.
“The couches, the tables, the chairs, the blanket. It could be the coffee table. It could be the carpet — they’re burning up more fiercely and giving off much more toxic smoke,” Cunliffe said.
Fires used to take about seven to nine minutes to consume a room, Cunliffe said. In recent years, that window to get to safety is now between four and five minutes, sometimes with devastating consequences.
Just after Christmas, two eight-year-old children and two adults, including their mother, died in a house fire in Hamilton that began in an upholstered sofa, Ontario Fire Marshal Jon Pegg said at the time. The house had no working smoke alarms and firefighters were unable to rescue them in time from the second storey.
There’s also been a steady rise in the number of structural fires in Hamilton in the last few years, including 323 in 2022, the highest in nearly a decade, according to city data.
On Monday alone, city firefighters responded to four fires. One started from a cigarette discarded into a highrise apartment building’s garbage chute, another on a back deck that then spread up the house’s siding, and the other two in boarded-up buildings, said Cunliffe.
Last year, Ontario reported 133 fatalities from structural fires — a 20-year high, according to the Office of the Fire Marshal.
B.C. also reported fire-related deaths nearly doubled between 2019 and 2021. When CBC News reached out to the Alberta government for comparable numbers, a spokesperson said it would take weeks to compile.
The leading causes of fires haven’t changed, said Nancy Macdonald-Duncan, director of fire investigations with Ontario’s fire marshal. Unattended cooking and careless smoking top the list.
Along with materials being more flammable, open-concept layouts mean fewer walls to slow the spread of fire, she said.
“People overestimate the time that they have to evacuate a home when there is a fire,” Macdonald-Duncan said. “People don’t always take the [preventive] measures that they should.”
She urges families to create an evacuation plan and ensure there are working smoke alarms throughout the home.
In Hamilton last year, 51 per cent of residential fires had no working smoke alarm, said Cunliffe.
“Literally within four to five minutes, we’ve seen rooms where they’re fully involved in fire,” he said. “So if you’re in that room and you don’t have a smoke alarm, and it hasn’t warned you in the early stages that there is a fire, you’re probably not going to survive.”
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