London Free Press file photo

A spate of Southern Ontario house fires – that have killed at least 18 people in less than a month – have fire prevention officers shaking their heads and spreading the word about fire safety once again.

And with emergency crews in the midst of the busiest season for residential blazes – December, January and February – the fire prevention call to action is more important than ever. 

“These months there’s more fires than other months of the year,” said St. Thomas chief fire prevention officer Bill Todd. “People are in their homes more. We get into heating equipment, that kind of stuff. People are inside more than they are in the middle of the summer.”

Todd wants to see a swift end to the staggering number of house fire-related fatalities that have torn apart families and destroyed homes across the region in just a few short weeks.

In early December, two people were killed in separate Woodstock house fires just days apart. A Dec. 12 blaze in Palmerston claimed the life of another person. Four members of the same family died in a Port Colborne house fire on Dec. 14 and later that same day, a father and his four young boys were killed when fire engulfed their home at Oneida of the Thames First Nation. On Dec. 15, the body of one man was pulled from a burning home in Newmarket.  

The carnage continued through the holidays with a Christmas Eve fire at a Peterborough-area cottage killing a family of four and an early morning New Year’s Day blaze on Moore Street in St. Thomas claiming the life of 58-year-old Leonard Bradford.

With a death toll that steep in such a short amount of time, Todd isn’t sure the fire safety message gets much clearer.

“We spend a lot of time trying to educate and if you have a working smoke alarm and it’s located in the right location, your odds of getting out when there’s a fire are pretty good,” said Todd. “But unfortunately, in a lot of these cases, we’re finding that the smoke alarm is in the wrong location, not working or has its batteries removed.”

When it comes to fire prevention strategies, Todd will tell anyone who will listen – and track down ones who don’t. The firefighting veteran, who’s also the president of the Lambton, Elgin, Middlesex and South West Oxford chapter of the Ontario Municipal Fire Prevention Officers Association, has pounded the pavement, launched awareness campaigns, written extensively and spoken out about fire safety for years.

But even with all his efforts, he still encounters too many homes with obvious oversights. 

“It’s frustrating in certain ways, that’s for sure,” said Todd. “It’s sad that a number of them (fatal house fires) don’t have working smoke alarms. It’s that simple.”

In 2016, Todd said 96 people died in 60 house fires across Ontario. Though he said the total number of house fires in 2016 – and the number of related deaths – are more-or-less consistent with previous years, the number of multi-fatality fires this winter are grabbing headlines.

“We’ve had quite a few multiples this year,” said Todd, adding the number of house fire-related deaths in Ontario is trending downward year over year. “We’re going in the right direction, but it’s still too many.”

While he recognizes some fires are bound to happen, even in the most careful homes, Todd said early detection is the key to getting out alive.

“Preventing fires is the way to go, but in the case you can’t prevent them, is to be able to get out quickly. That’s what smoke alarms are for,” he said. “A working smoke alarm, in the proper location, saves lives.”

Fatal House Fires in Southern Ontario

Dec 6 One person dies in Woodstock blaze
Dec 12 One man killed in early morning Woodstock house fire
Fatal afternoon house fire in Palmerston kills one person
Dec 14 Four members of the same family killed when fire engulfed their Port Colborne home
A father and four young children killed in blaze at Oneida Nation of the Thames
Dec 15 One man killed in Newmarket house fire
Dec 24 Family of four killed in Peterborough-area cottage fire
Jan 1 One man killed in St. Thomas house fire

Source: Area fire toll staggering | The London Free Press