British Columbia

Troubling rise in fire-related deaths in B.C. due to carelessness, distraction, say experts

Fire officials and advocates issue warning over a dramatic increase in fire-caused deaths in British Columbia during the pandemic.

Province’s fire commissioner reports a 118 per cent increase in deaths between 2019 and 2021

Firefighters at the scene of a house fire on East 41st Avenue in Vancouver that claimed the lives of three people on Jan. 30, 2022. (Ryan Stelting)

Fire officials and advocates are issuing a warning over the dramatic increase in fire-caused deaths in British Columbia during the pandemic.

The Office of the Fire Commissioner recorded 59 deaths in 2021, a 118 per cent increase from 27 deaths in 2019. There were 52 fire fatalities in 2020.

"This is a concerning trend on a number of fronts," said the province's Fire Commissioner Brian Godlonton. "Every fire death is a preventable fire death."

He said the increase in fire-related deaths is being seen across B.C. and in many other provinces mostly likely due to people being at home more due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Everybody is spending more time in the home, there's candles unattended, there's smoking materials unattended, there's kitchens unattended, fires are breaking out," he said.

 

Godlonton, along with others, say awareness campaigns are urgently needed to promote the importance of functioning smoke alarms, emergency plans for getting safely out of a burning building and recognizing activities which could cause a fire.

In the meantime, however, 2022 seems to be picking up right where 2021 left off with continued fatalities.

"This year hasn't started off great for us," said Vancouver Fire Chief Karen Fry.

"You know we've already had four deaths and last year we had five for the entire year and the year before that it was similar numbers, so this is very concerning for us."

On Jan. 30  a grandfather, mother, and a child under 10 years old died in a house fire in East Vancouver, while two other family members were injured. Fire investigators are trying to determine if the dwelling had working smoke alarms.

A day later, a 37-year-old man died after he was injured in a fire at a highrise in Vancouver's West End. A second person was injured after inhaling smoke.

After two fatal fires in Vancouver in January 2022, the city's fire chief says Vancouver is on pace to exceed eight fire-related deaths recorded in 2018. (Ryan Stelting)

In 2020, there were 7,161 fires reported in the province, which resulted in 180 injuries and 52 deaths according to the latest annual report from the Officer of the Fire Commissioner.

More than 60 per cent of the fires were in the Lower Mainland and around 40 per cent were structure fires.

A new annual report will be published by Godlonton April 1, but his quarterly report for Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, 2021 shows that there were 1,520 fires in that period and 12 deaths.

Ignorance, distraction

Of those fires, 271 were caused because people didn't properly recognize a fire risk, such as smoking in a bedroom, while 63 were caused by people being distracted or preoccupied.

Firefighters like Fry hope the sobering statistics help reiterate the importance of staying safe at home.

"If you're in the kitchen and you're cooking you're paying attention to your cooking, you're not getting distracted on your phone or watching TV and recognizing that fires are very dangerous," said Fry. "They can escalate very quickly."

Fry and Godlonton say they are also seeing an increase in fires starting from batteries, like those used in electronics or scooters and bicycles, being unsafely charged or used.

They are also seeing fires affecting vulnerable people using blow torches to consume opioids. They want education campaigns to reach people working or living in supportive housing or single-occupancy units so that there is less risk of a fire starting due to drug use. 

They also have highlighted the need for care workers to help seniors make sure smoke alarms are properly working. Research shows fire-related fatalities in B.C. are disproportionately likely to occur among those aged 65 years or older.

'Wait a sec'

Stasi Manser suffered burns to 95 per cent of her body when she was five-years-old. She works with the B.C. Professional Fire Fighters' Burn Fund to raise awareness about fire safety and also offer peer support to other burn survivors. (Dave Harcus)

Victoria's Stasi Manser, suffered burns to 95 per cent of her body when she was five years old. She was trying to heat milk on the stove for her younger sister while her mother was still sleeping

She's spent her life recovering and coping with her injuries. For the past eight years she has worked with the B.C. Professional Fire Fighters' Burn Fund to support other burn survivors and help raise awareness about fire danger.

She is unsettled by the rise in fire-related deaths, and hopes people will take fire safety seriously.

The 57 year old has a three-year-old granddaughter and finds herself consciously assessing fire danger in her home.

"Despite what I've been through, I have to check myself when I walk away from the stove and I've got something on it's 'Oh, wait a sec, turn those handles around [so a child cannot reach them],' " she said.

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