Fire marshal's report details search for smoker who started Shediac jail fire

Roofing materials used in the province’s newest and largest jail helped a fire last fall spread more quickly, according to a fire marshal’s report obtained by CBC News through access to information.

Fire at province's newest and largest jail spread with help of wind and roofing materials, report says

A fire, deemed accidental, broke out at the Southeast Regional Correctional Centre on Oct. 25. There were no injuries to staff or inmates. (Chris McCarthy)

Roofing materials used in the province's newest and largest jail helped a fire last fall spread more quickly, according to a fire marshal's report obtained by CBC News through access to information.

The report details the discovery of the Oct. 25 fire on a second-floor terrace at the Shediac jail, which forced the province to temporarily relocate more than 160 inmates. No one was injured.

Signed by regional fire marshal Raymond LeBlanc, the report concludes the fire was accidental and likely happened when a discarded cigarette butt fell between the openings of a wooden ramp and ignited a pile of dry leaves.

The jail is supposed to be "100 per cent non-smoking," but investigators "found several cigarette butts at different locations" on the second-floor terrace and in close proximity to the wooden ramp.

Interviews with employees, which are detailed in the report, mention a "designated area" for smoking on the jail's first floor.

The terrace isn't accessible to inmates and can only be opened at a reception desk or by a key that needs to be signed out, staff told investigators.

"To reinforce my hypothesis, I was provided with written data from [director of corrections] Len Davies that indicates the door to the terrace did actually open to allow someone to enter upon the terrace at [1:14 p.m.] prior to the fire," LeBlanc wrote in the report.

"This is another indication that someone could have gone onto the terrace and accidentally disposed of smoker's materials, which caused the fire."

Smoke was first detected at the jail a little more than an hour later, at 2:25 p.m.

Water damage and soot

More than 160 inmates had to be relocated from the Shediac jail after the fire. (Rodrick Bourque)

Wind caused the fire to spread "very quickly," the report says, igniting "the roll-type and tar roofing material" before travelling to the roof, where one of the jail's ventilation systems was located.

"The use of corrugated steel sheeting and spray-type foam with excess roofing tar running down into it contributed to the accelerated spread of the fire to the third floor location," LeBlanc wrote.

The next day, the fire marshal found water damage and "extensive soot" in the hallway leading to the terrace.

Unit one, which housed up to 60 offenders, won't be usable until March, according to the Department of Justice and Public Safety. That brings the jail's capacity down to 120 from 180.

In an emailed statement sent on Monday, a spokesperson for the department declined to comment on the fire marshal's report, saying the investigation into the fire is continuing.

Justice and Public Safety Minister Denis Landry has previously described the cause of the fire as "disappointing."

'Call 911'

The fire at the jail, pictured here before it opened, was an accident, according to a fire marshal's report.

As heavy black smoke filled a terrace at the Shediac jail, maintenance worker Roger Richard raced to the second floor.

With jail superintendent John Cann behind him, Richard called for help on his radio.

"Control 1 Call 911," Richard said.

When the two men reached the terrace, they saw flames. Only a window separated them from the fire.

Richard grabbed a fire extinguisher and opened the door to the terrace.

At the same time, windows overlooking the terrace broke. Smoke and heat billowed in, triggering a sprinkler and a fire alarm.

"It all happened very quickly," the report said.

In order to keep the fire from spreading, the jail's central air system had be shut off manually. The system isn't equipped with an automatic shut-off when a fire alarm goes off, according to the report.

"For that reason, it allowed black smoke to be pulled into the building, more specifically in the unit one area."

None of the documents reveal whose cigarette butt ignited the fire.

In one interview with an employee working in the jail that day, fire investigators asked what brand of cigarettes another staff member smokes.

The names of both employees are redacted in the report.

"[The employee being interviewed] replied that [redacted] smokes Player's Filter and that [redacted] was also aware of the designated area for smoking on the first floor."

Fire cooled tensions at jail

The Southeast Regional Correctional Centre, shown here before it opened, saw more than 160 inmates temporarily relocated because of the fire in October. (CBC)

One day before the fire, the province's ombud emailed the deputy minister of justice and public safety to raise alarm bells about rising tension at the Shediac jail between inmates in general population and protective custody.

Charles Murray's office saw a spike in the "volume and nature" of calls with complaints about the jail. The ombudsman is responsible for investigating complaints from provincial inmates.

"None of our investigators (some of whom have been with us 20+ years) can recall anything comparable," Murray wrote in an email to deputy minister Mike Comeau on Oct. 24.

Employees were doing their best, Murray wrote, but the tension level wasn't coming down.

"We're concerned a major incident is likely if this trend continues."

Ironically, the jail fire may have helped defuse some of the tension.

The unit that remains out of order housed maximum security inmates, who have all been moved to other jails, Murray said in an interview Friday.

He also believes the fire improved relationships between staff and inmates, who had to work together to escape the fire.

Ombudsman Charles Murray says a fire at the Shediac jail helped cool tensions among prisoners. (CBC)

"Obviously, you wouldn't suggest as a policy one of the good ways to defuse tension in the institution is to have somebody set a fire, then we can all have this team-building exercise," Murray said.

"But that well may be one of the after-effects."

With a different atmosphere and mix of people in the jail, Murray doesn't have the same level of concern now.

But his office is still worried about "the original mix of decisions and policies" that led to rising tension in the first place.  

"That's part of an ongoing conversation that we're going to continue to have with the department," Murray said.

About the Author

Karissa Donkin

Karissa Donkin is a journalist in CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. Do you have a story you want us to investigate? Send your tips to NBInvestigates@CBC.ca.