Smoking materials caused Lower Sackville fire that killed 3 people

Halifax Regional Fire says smoking materials that weren't disposed of properly were the root of the duplex fire that claimed the lives of three people in Lower Sackville, N.S.

Investigation found fire started in basement, caused an electrical fault in the house

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)

Halifax Regional Fire has updated its findings into the investigation of the duplex fire that claimed the lives of three people in Lower Sackville, N.S., and now says it was smoking materials that weren't disposed of properly that started a fire in the unit's basement.

Marven Hart, 58, and Carys Whalen, 11, died after the March 3 fire. Trent Hart, 18, was taken off life-support two days later. 

Fire Chief Ken Stuebing said there will be no charges and it's classified as an accidental fire. Last week, he told reporters fire investigators had concluded their work and found an electrical fault was the cause. Until the municipality issued a statement on Monday evening with the updated findings, fire officials continued to maintain that the electrical fault caused the fire.

Spokesperson Brendan Elliott said the municipality wasn't backtracking and the investigation was always ongoing.  

"When we came out with the information we had last week, it was to give the public the sense that first of all this wasn't an arson, that there was a clear idea and evidence early on to show that there had been an electrical fault," Elliott told CBC. 

He said investigators worked with other agencies, including insurance investigators, and discovered what caused the electrical fault in another part of the basement. 

"What we were able to determine is that the smoking materials were the igniter, ignition of the original fire, and what we saw when we did our initial investigation was an electrical fault."

Elliott's Monday evening release also said the investigation showed "all recent electrical work at the property was done appropriately and up to code."

Clem Chisholm, who owns eight properties, had said he wouldn't be getting an inspector to review the electrical work in them. (Emma Davie/CBC)

Clem Chisholm, the owner of the duplex on Leaside Drive, owns seven other properties in the area. He previously told CBC he had no reason to suspect there was a problem with the electrical work in his other units and did not plan to get an electrician to do an inspection. He also said the work done in his units was inspected properly. 

Monday evening Chisholm declined to comment on the fire department's findings. 

Monday just before noon, deputy fire Chief Roy Hollett said the cause was an electrical fault and investigators were looking into the exact spot it started. He said electrical faults could be caused by things ranging from a short, wiring issues or nails through Gyproc.

"Our investigation, to date, has classified this as an electrical fault and that's why we're still digging into it as to what that fault was. Any other versions would be news to me," he said. "We realize three people died and we want to make sure that we've done everything we can to determine the incident doesn't happen again. That's why we're really digging at this one." 

Prior to the announcement about the smoking materials, Mike Whalen, the son of Pat Hart, who survived the fire, said he wanted to connect tenants of buildings owned by the same landlord with electricians who could review the wiring in their units. 

Roy Hollett is the deputy fire chief of Halifax Regional Fire. (CBC)

Whalen said if Chisholm wasn't going to, he could get certified electricians to go into the tenants' units this week to look at the work, see if smoke detectors are installed, and examine the electrical panels. 

"It's just taking a second glance. There's nothing wrong with getting a second opinion on anything," he said.

"At least we'll add closure to the mother who is in there with four kids so she can go to bed and not know if her house is going to blow up, like my mom's did." ​

Tenant worries about fire risk

Tenant Tara Slaunwhite, who lives on a nearby street in a unit owned by Chisholm, said her landlord told her to turn her power off Friday and then called back to say to leave it be.

Tara Slaunwhite says she's had a hard time sleeping since a fire in another duplex owned by her landlord. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

She said she was left wondering about recent work that was done in her unit and said she's been uneasy since the fire. She had asked a family member to look at the boiler in her laundry room.

"I'm very concerned there could be a fire in any other one of these units," she said Monday afternoon. "I haven't slept very good. I did go out and buy more smoke detectors and randomly put them around the house."

Smoke detectors recommended

Halifax Regional Fire said at the time of the 34 Leaside Dr. fire, there was only one working smoke detector in the duplex in a stairwell, which doesn't meet the current code that requires interconnected smoke detectors in every bedroom, in stairways and in halls outside bedrooms. 

Hollett said he would like to see legislation that requires homes to follow the current legislation, but at this point, there's no requirement for homes built under previous rules to follow the new ones. 

"We recommend, encourage, promote, to follow the existing code," he said.

Elliott also said part of the reason the fire department shared its initial findings was to encourage people to ensure they have smoke detectors.

"We believe that if there had been more than one smoke alarm in the house, in more locations, this might not have been as tragic an outcome as it was," he said.