Fire safety of hundreds of new Alberta houses in doubt

A CBC News investigation is raising serious doubts about the effectiveness of new laws aimed at eliminating another major fire like the one in Edmonton's MacEwan community in 2007.
FlameX president Brett Elanik (left) speaks with CBC reporter Charles Rusnell. (CBC)

A CBC News investigation is raising serious doubts about the effectiveness of new laws aimed at eliminating another major fire like the one that razed Edmonton’s MacEwan neighbourhood in 2007.

The month-long CBC investigation found hundreds of new houses across the province have been sheathed with Fireboss, a fire-resistant board that tests have shown may not provide enough fire protection.

Calgary has now banned the use of Fireboss in new-house construction. But Edmonton still allows its use despite complaints that it may not provide the fire protection its manufacturer claims.

"(It) didn’t seem to offer much fire performance, not beyond what you would get if you just put paint on a board," said Tony LaGrange, a St. Albert paint chemist with more than 20 years experience in researching and developing fire-resistant products. LaGrange’s company, Quantum, produces a product that can be used in the housing industry.

LaGrange conducted his own tests on Fireboss after hearing complaints from both inside and outside the industry that the product didn’t work as advertised. Based on those tests, he said a new house sheathed in Fireboss would be no safer than a house sheathed with untreated boards.

Fireboss is oriented-strand board (OSB) coated with a fire-retardant paint and a wax paper overlay. It is sold by Edmonton-based company FlameX. Its president, Brett Elanik, estimates Fireboss commands about 60 per cent of the fledgling fire-resistant board market. He insists Fireboss provides the protection it claims.

"It does make your house safer," Elanik said in a recent interview.

But CBC News learned after the interview that Fireboss’s certification had been revoked more than a week ago by Intertek. The independent testing company removed its approval of Fireboss after several of its randomly chosen boards failed to meet fire-testing standards.

Failed several tests

The Intertek test was not the only independent test that Fireboss has failed. CBC News has obtained an independent test conducted by Underwriters Laboratory of Canada (ULC) at the request of Cano Coatings and Pinkwood, two related Calgary companies that are competitors of Fireboss. That test showed Fireboss had no fire resistance.

Treated OSB must have a flame-spread rating of less than 25, which is a measure of how fast a flame spreads on a board. The Underwriters test found Fireboss burned at an average rate of 155, which is about the same as untreated OSB.

 "It certainly doesn’t meet the fire code," said Martin Dettbarn of Cano Coatings. "It’s a safety issue. Any home that has to have a fire-rated sidewall, and they have this (Fireboss) product on their house, it does not meet the code."

Independent testing raises doubts

Dettbarn’s father Richard owns Pinkwood. The two companies spent $4,500 to commission the Underwriters test after fire officials in Calgary and Edmonton declined to act on their complaints, and the complaints of others, about the quality of Fireboss.

The Dettbarns provided the test results in October to both Intertek and Calgary fire officials. Intertek subsequently revoked its certification. Calgary then effectively banned the use of Fireboss on new construction. It is not known if the Underwriters test played a role in the actions of either Intertek or Calgary fire officials. Edmonton still allows its use.

New fire-safety bylaws were implemented in Edmonton and Calgary in response to a 2007 fire in the MacEwan neighbourhood of south Edmonton. It damaged or destroyed nearly 100 homes, causing about $25 million dollars in damage. Fire officials blamed the massive fire on the close proximity of houses.

The fire-safety bylaws created a new market in fire-resistant coated OSB. Competitors say FlameX was one of the first companies to jump into the market. In fact, FlameX began selling its product with the Intertek mark before the testing company had given its approval. Elanik denied this, but an Intertek official says otherwise.

Its competitors, and some homebuilders, first became suspicious about the Fireboss product when they noticed it washed off easily.

Fire-resistant coating washes off

In an email obtained by CBC, FlameX owner Brett Elanik said the fire-resistant part of his product, known as the intumescent coating, was transparent. He said the coloured part of the paint that washes off was strictly for marking purposes. In an interview, Elanik insisted his internal tests proved that Fireboss still met its fire-resistant standards even after it washed off.

In that same email, Elanik said Fireboss had passed an independent durability test. But he admitted the test was conducted on an updated version of Fireboss that was covered by a wax-paper overlay. That paper is supposed to be peeled off before installation in Calgary. In Edmonton, the paper can be left on but CBC News observed numerous houses where the paper had fallen away, and the paint had washed off.

Paint chemist Tony LaGrange said Fireboss failed tests even when the paint was intact and produced even worse results after the paint had washed off.

"An intumescent coating is kind of like a symphony of ingredients that all work together," he said.

"If the coating itself is gone, the symphony doesn’t take place … and there is no fire protection."

The Dettbarns are now suing FlameX in an attempt to have the product removed from the market. Elanik is countersuing, claiming the Dettbarns are simply trying to eliminate competition.





Charles Rusnell

Former investigative reporter

Charles Rusnell was a reporter with CBC Investigates, the investigative unit of CBC Edmonton, from 2008 until 2021. His journalism in the public interest is widely credited with forcing accountability, transparency and democratic change in Alberta.