Electrical work at scene of fatal fire was up to code: Halifax Fire officials

A Lower Sackville, N.S., landlord who owns the building that was the scene of a fatal fire earlier this month says he sees 'no reason' to do an inspection in nearby properties he owns where similar electrical work was done.

7 other Lower Sackville properties had the same electrical work done between September and December 2017

Marven Hart, 58, and Carys Whalen, 11, were killed in the March 3 fire at 34 Leaside Dr. Trent Hart, 18, was taken off life-support two days later. (Emma Davie/CBC)

Editor's note: This story was revised after publication based on updated information from Halifax Regional Fire.

Halifax Regional Fire officials who urged a Lower Sackville, N.S., landlord to review recent electrical work in his rental properties after a fatal fire now say that all electrical work in the building was up to code — and the fire was not started by an electrical fault.

Fire officials initially said one week ago that investigators had concluded their work at 34 Leaside Dr., where three members of the same family lost their lives on March 3, "and the evidence points to an electrical fault as the cause."  

Over the weekend, a Halifax Regional Fire spokesperson also told CBC News that deputy fire Chief Roy Hollett spoke to Clem Chisholm by telephone on Thursday and urged him to get an independent electrician to do an inspection of the work in seven other buildings he owns as a precaution.

Chisholm told CBC News that electrical work was done between September and December 2017 on eight properties he owns in the Lower Sackville neighbourhood, including the property at 34 Leaside Dr.

Chisholm said the work conducted last year involved replacing existing 100-amp electrical panels with 200-amp panels and having Nova Scotia Power run new wires from the street to the house.

​Chisholm said he had a permit for the work from Nova Scotia Power and it was conducted by a qualified electrician.

"All work that has been completed has been inspected by Nova Scotia Power," he wrote in an email.

City changes its stance

Fire officials announced Monday afternoon the fire was caused by "improper disposal of smoking materials" that led to an electrical fault.

In a statement, fire officials said the investigation has been concluded and "all recent electrical work at the property was done appropriately and up to code."

Chisholm disputed the department's initial findings over the weekend, saying Halifax Regional Fire had told him the cause is "accidental and unclassified."

Deputy fire Chief Roy Hollett called Clem Chisholm Thursday and suggested an electrical inspection be done on Chisholm's other properties. (Emma Davie/CBC)

Halifax Fire spokesman Brendan Elliott also previously told CBC that investigators could not say exactly where in the electrical system the fault happened, but "we came out as early as we did because we were confident we knew what the cause of the fire was."

On Friday afternoon, Chisholm emailed all his tenants and asked them to voluntarily turn off their main breakers and call Nova Scotia Power to request to be disconnected, for safety reasons.

CBC confirmed with two families that they received the email. They found it confusing and worrisome, but did not disconnect their power.

About three hours later, Chisholm emailed his tenants again and told them he had received new information from Halifax Regional Fire stating the cause of the fire at 34 Leaside was not electrical, and therefore they could reconnect their power.

The fire department denies telling him that.

Halifax Regional Fire spokesperson Brendan Elliott says it isn't known yet exactly where the electrical fault occurred. (CBC)

Chisholm acknowledged he talked to the deputy fire chief Thursday, but told CBC he had no plans to get an electrician to do an inspection of his other properties.

"If I had reason to suspect that there was a problem, yes, but we have no reason to suspect that there's a problem," he said.

Over the weekend, Chisholm said when he's told what the cause of the fire is, he will take "appropriate action."

Chisholm called the reporting on the cause of the fire "media hype" and "less than accurate," and said the media had misinterpreted the fire department's findings.

"What I wanted from Halifax Regional Fire was, OK, what caused the problem? Could it happen in another house? And what have we got to do to fix it? That information was not forthcoming," said Chisholm.

"They've since called me back and categorically confirmed that they have not determined there to be an electrical problem. I don't know what more you think I should be doing," he said.

By email, Chisholm expressed condolences to the family affected by the March 3 fire, and said it was the first incident he has had since becoming a landlord in 1974. He described himself and his wife as "concerned and proactive about the health and safety of [our] tenants."

'It wouldn't hurt for an electrician to come in'

Christa Pickles and her family live in another duplex owned by Chisholm, and had the same electrical work done. She's concerned for the safety of her four children, including her seven-month-old baby, and she said tenants in the buildings have been confused by the developments of the last few days.

Pat Hart said her heart is 'shattered' after the deadly fire that killed her husband, son and granddaughter. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

"I'm sure that Clem is just looking out for his tenants and doesn't want anybody else to get hurt," she said, but added that she would feel better if someone took an expert look at her home.

"It wouldn't hurt for an electrician to come in," she said. "Who's to say that the mistake that could have been made over there wasn't made in anybody else's house? It doesn't hurt to get a second opinion."

Elliott said the fire department has already given that same advice to Chisholm.

Elliott added that for tenants like Pickles, the city would "never recommend" turning off the main breaker.

"What we would encourage them to do is go out and buy some $10 or $12 smoke alarms and place them in correct places throughout their house, if they're concerned, and follow up with their landlord," he said.

About the Author

Shaina Luck


Shaina Luck covers everything from court to city council. Her favourite stories are about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Email: shaina.luck@cbc.ca