Fire marshal releases cause of fatal Pubnico Head fire that killed 4 children

A fast-moving fire that claimed the lives of four children in rural Nova Scotia last month was ignited by heat coming from a wood stove, the province's fire marshal confirmed Thursday, as he said his office must do a better job of releasing such information.

Heat from wood stove was the origin of the fast-moving fire that broke out on Jan. 7

RCMP officers and a representative of the Medical Examiner's office search the scene of a house destroyed in a weekend fire in Pubnico Head, N.S. on Jan. 8, 2018. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

A fast-moving fire that claimed the lives of four children in rural Nova Scotia last month was ignited by heat coming from a wood stove, the province's fire marshal confirmed Thursday, as he said his office must do a better job of releasing such information.

"We have an opportunity to look at what's been done in the past and an obligation to make improvements in the public interest where we can," Fred Jeffers said in an interview.

While the fire was sparked by a wood stove, its origin was around the chimney, he said.

The two-storey home in Pubnico Head, N.S., was engulfed in flames by the time firefighters arrived 11 minutes after receiving a call for help on Jan. 7.

Emma Kennedy and her common-law partner Phil Prouty escaped the blaze, but the fire killed four-month-old Winston Prouty, four-year-old Jayla Kennedy, seven-year-old Mya Prouty and seven-year-old Mason Grant, a cousin who was visiting for a sleepover.

Prouty, a local fisherman, was left badly injured by the fire. He was brought out of an induced coma two days later.

Last week, a spokesperson for the provincial government confirmed the fire marshal's investigation had been completed, but she refused to release its basic findings, citing "privacy laws."

The response from the Municipal Affairs Department, which oversees the Office of the Fire Marshal, was criticized by David Fraser, a legal expert in privacy issues, and journalism professor Fred Vallance-Jones at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Info released when in the public interest

Fraser said the province's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act grants most public bodies broad discretion when it comes to disclosing information considered in the public interest, while protecting personal data.

Police, for example, often release the cause of death and victims' names in murder cases. But the personal information in an autopsy is protected by the provincial statute, typically referred to as FOIPOP.

When a fire causes multiple deaths, it's in the public interest to release the cause because such information can promote public safety, Fraser said.

Jeffers said his office is not in the habit of routinely releasing such information, but he confirmed basic findings have been released in the past when doing so was in the public interest.

From left to right, Mason, 7, Mya, 7, Jayla, 4 and three-month-old Winston, died in a house fire in January. (Submitted by Ryan Cook)

As well, he stressed that his investigation reports must first be vetted through the FOIPoP process before any information can be released.

He agreed when asked if there needed to be more openness when it comes to releasing that information.

"The wording of that response probably wasn't what we should have had there," he said, referring to the Municipal Affairs Department.

"Based on this incident … we can certainly see that what we've done in the past is not in the best interest of the public, and we need to look at it."

Jeffers, who has been fire marshal for more than a year, would not say what changes his agency is contemplating.

"We have an opportunity here to look at past practice … and consider a better way forward. I don't want to commit to any more than that right now."

He said promoting fire safety is a top priority for his office, noting there is a deputy fire marshal dedicated to that job.

Jeffers also made a point of pointing to his office's website, which includes extensive information about fire safety, including facts sheets on carbon monoxide, escape planning, fire extinguishers and careless smoking.

According to the Canada Safety Council, an area of at least one metre around a wood stove or fireplace should be clear of anything that might catch fire or overheat. It says installing a heat shield can prevent heat damage to nearby walls, adding that no one should leave the house or go to bed while a fire is still burning.

"If you are using a fireplace, regularly have the chimney cleaned and serviced by a professional," its website advises.