A cottage fire that killed a Toronto family of four last Christmas Eve shows the importance of not only having smoke alarms, but positioning them properly in your home, fire prevention experts say.

Investigators with the Ontario Fire Marshal's office haven't determined what caused the fire, but they are certain it wasn't because the family neglected to protect their cottage.

"These individuals were actually proactive," said Scott Evenden, the operations manager with the office of the Fire Marshal.

Evenden says the cottage, in Douro-Dummer Township near Peterborough, Ont., had multiple wall-mounted smoke alarms, but investigators believe that several minutes may have passed between the start of the fire and when the alarms detected it, because of where they were placed in the home.

Investigators say ultimately this is likely what led to the death of  Geoff Taber and Jacqueline (Jacquie) Gardner, and their sons Scott, 15, and Andrew, 13.

Geoff Taber and Jacquie Gardner,

Geoff Taber and Jacquie Gardner, along with their two sons, died in their family cottage near Peterborough, Ont., after a fire broke out on Dec. 24, 2016. (Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP)

According to Evenden, their cottage was open-concept and the living room had vaulted ceilings.

Investigators determined the fire started in the living room under the vaulted ceiling, which was very high and blocked off from the rest of the home.

"Those areas did not have smoke alarms installed in them," Evenden said.

Because smoke and heat rise, Evenden says the smoke would have first accumulated under the vaulted ceiling before progressing down to a point where it could travel horizontally across to an area that did have an alarm.

'If there's a fire, where is that smoke going to go?'

These are things people need to take into consideration when deciding where to put smoke alarms in their homes according to Evenden.

"You have to consider, if there's a fire, where is that smoke going to go?" he said.

And a good smoke alarm should come with information on where those locations are.  

"There's manufacturer's instructions within the contents of those smoke alarms and generally as a rule, more often than not there is a diagram that shows proper placement," Evenden told CBC Toronto.

He says you should always consider high points in your home, and rooms that may be blocked off from other parts of the house.

"If there's doors involved or walls, that all affects the movement and development of smoke," he said.

Smoke alarms in bedrooms

The Ontario Fire Code doesn't require homes to have a smoke alarm in every bedroom, but Evenden says it's better to be safe than sorry.

"If the fire occurs in the bedroom and you don't have a smoke alarm, by the time that smoke migrates outside of a closed door, the individual that may or may not be in that bedroom is in some serious jeopardy."

Scott Evenden

Scott Evenden of the Ontario Fire Marshal's Office says investigators could not determine the exact cause of a Christmas Eve fire that killed a Toronto family of four. (CBC)

Larry Cocco, the division chief of fire investigations for Toronto Fire, says people often aren't aware of how little time they have to react if there is a fire in there home.

"A fire is a dynamic event and the hot gases, smoke and byproducts of combustion develop rather quickly and you can be overcome."

Cocco says the more rooms in your home that are equipped with smoke alarms, the better chance you have of getting out alive if there is a fire.

"A working smoke alarm in an average room can detect a developing fire as quick as nine seconds. That's in the incipient stages of the fire, well before the environment is toxic."

Of course not all homes are the same. Evenden says there is one more step homeowners can take to ensure they are completely protected.

"You can reach out to your local fire service and ask for guidance and direction."