Q&A

Calgary fire marshal explains why some newer homes have greater fire risk

Calgary's fire marshal says some new building materials burn hotter and faster than older materials, and some Calgary communities were built to standards that don't have the same level of fire prevention as the 2014 Alberta Building Code.

New building materials can turn homes into 'kindling' after fire takes hold

Fire Marshall Ed Kujat says new building materials are as flammable as 'kindling' (Supplied)

​You probably don't give much thought to the materials used to build your house, but perhaps you should.

A fire in the northwest community of Kincora this week destroyed three homes and and badly damaged a fourth. No one was injured. 

But Calgary's fire marshal says some new building materials burn hotter and faster than older materials, and some Calgary communities were built to standards that don't have the same level of fire prevention as the 2014 Alberta Building Code. 

According to the province, officials in Alberta requested changes to the fire code in 2007. Those amendments, which are in the current building code, stipulate that houses be built 1.2 metres from the property line. 

Ed Kujat spoke to the Calgary Eyeopener about what else he'd like to see changed. 

Q: What can you tell us about Kincora?

A: [It's a] recent construction.

Calgary's fire marshal Ed Kujat says homes in newer communities like Kincora are at a greater risk of fire because of the building materials and lack of separation between homes. (Allison Dempster/CBC)

All the homes built in the city of Calgary are built under the Alberta building code that was in place at the time that the building permit was pulled, and homes in each community are accordingly built.

Newer communities would have been built to 2014 code, and Kincora would have been probably built to the 1997 code.

Q: Why are we seeing more blazes in some newer communities?

A: As we've all seen in the last 25 years, there's been more expanding construction methods [and] building products used for economy and functionality. 

At least 16 people from six units were forced from their homes last fall as fire crews battled a major blaze at a townhouse complex in Evanston. (Kate Adach/CBC)

More engineered wood products are used rather than conventional dimensional lumber that we've seen in legacy [homes], and fabrication through bonded fibres is giving structural strength to new engineered products.

Q: Why are these materials problematic?

A: New construction materials built out of engineered wood products are fabricated through bonding and glue type materials and therefore it's not conventional, thick lumber material, it's more like kindling.

New building materials are like kindling, says Kujat. (CBC)

They're very robust in terms of engineered materials but because of the new construction standards, there certainly has been a change in fire dynamics.

Q: What needs to change?

A: We would like to see changes nationally. The national code is a model code which our provincial codes come from. Certainly we'd like to see greater fire resistant practices in homes — separations, types of materials being used. 

Fully drywalled interiors including finished basements would be awesome. Ensure all homes of course have smoke and carbon monoxide alarms throughout the homes, hardwired and interconnected. 

Q: What about the building code?

A: We are lobbying for greater building separations so that the standard can change in the future. 

My top ask would certainly be greater separation distances to lot lines, so building homes farther apart. Non-combustible exterior cladding would be a preference to me. Solid soffits (eaves) would be a good start.

The provincial building codes are modelled after the national code. (Screenshot)

Kujat will retire at the end of this week after joining the Calgary Fire Department in 1987. He became the city's fire marshal in 2012. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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