Gasoline stored near furnace caused fire that injured Dartmouth family

Family of five suffered burns and broken bones after an explosion and fire blew out the door and windows of their Dartmouth townhouse on Dec. 8.

Gasoline vapours ignited when furnace was turned on, says fire prevention officer

Assinath Muhindo and her three children are getting settled into a temporary home in Dartmouth following last Friday's fire. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

A Dec. 8 fire that sent five family members leaping out of a second-storey window of their townhouse in Dartmouth, N.S., was triggered by gasoline vapours that ignited when the furnace was turned on, fire investigators have determined.

The fire started in the basement furnace room of the rented townhouse in Ocean Breeze Village near Shannon Park.

Halifax's fire prevention chief, Matt Covey, says the fire that destroyed a Dartmouth, N.S., townhouse and forced a family of five to jump out of a second-storey window was triggered by gas fumes. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

"There was gasoline being stored in the same room as the furnace," said Matt Covey, the fire prevention division chief with Halifax Fire, on Thursday.

"The gasoline got into the air in the form of vapour and when the furnace was turned on, it caused an explosion. It was absolutely an accidental fire that just required the perfect combination of fuel mixture in the air," he said.

Burns and broken bones

Assinath Muhindo told the CBC that her husband, Etienne Basenge, had gone downstairs to turn on the heat because the house was cold. Moments later, an explosion sent flames racing through their home.

The 30-year-old man, his wife and three of their children escaped by jumping out a second-storey window in their townhouse on Princess Margaret Boulevard.

The explosion and fire at this townhouse on Princess Margaret Boulevard blew out the door and windows. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

The man suffered extensive burns and other injuries while helping his family flee the fire, the Canadian Red Cross said in a statement.

Muhindo, who is 28, was cut and burned. The couple's two boys, seven and four, and their nine-year-old daughter have bone fractures, some burns and scrapes. They fled the Congo and lived in a refugee camp in Rwanda before coming to Canada as refugees. 

Gas container too close to furnace

Covey said whether Basenge turned on the furnace with the thermostat or the emergency switch, the result would have been the same.

It appears fumes may have escaped from the gas container because of a loose top, he said.

"We suspect there were issues with the container the gasoline was stored in. It was a gasoline container but we're unsure of how the lids were fixed to the top of it."

Assinath Muhindo and Etienne Basenge are shown with their three children, Roger, 7, Divine, 9 and Regis, 4. (Submitted by Assinath Muhindo)

Under the provincial fire code, up to 30 litres of gasoline are allowed to be stored in a house, but the gas shouldn't be kept near the furnace, he said.

'At least everyone's alive'

The accidental fire caused $300,000 in damage. The townhouse — which is the middle of the row — is a total loss, Covey said.

"This particular building … has fire walls so it was confined to one unit. "

The force of the explosion blew out the door and windows, including the frames, Covey said.

He praised Basenge for saving the lives of his family by getting them to jump out the window.

"I would like to recognize that even after this happened, the individual, … badly burned, still managed to have the right mindset to go notify his family, get them safely out of the building, throw the mattress out of the window [to land on] — did all the right things in a very, very hectic situation. Even though he's badly injured, at least everyone's alive."

Basenge remains in hospital, where he is being treated for his injuries. 

The rest of the family is staying temporarily in a furnished unit in the same Ocean Breeze subdivision. Volunteers have provided personal care items and toys to help comfort the children and are helping the family contact insurance adjusters, the Red Cross said.