Crackdown finds banned barbecues at 144 P.E.I. apartment buildings
Fire inspectors order barbecues off balconies across province after devastating fire
It was an explosion that woke Loyola Griffin from a deep sleep that night.
"Like a bomb going off," he said. "I'll never forget that noise."
When he looked out his bedroom window, "it was just red. I was terrified."
Griffin's second floor apartment was right above where a barbecue propane tank had exploded, ignited by a fire in black landscaping mulch beside the building, and accelerated dramatically when it connected with the ground floor propane tank.
Griffin pulled on some shorts, ran into the hallway, pulled the fire alarm and banged on his neighbours' doors, yelling "Fire! Fire! Get out!"
Fortunately everyone got out safely.
But the quick-spreading fire destroyed the three-storey building on Harley Street in Charlottetown in July 2019 and displaced all 52 residents. Most lost nearly everything they owned.
In the days following the fire, inspectors visited apartment buildings in the province's largest centres to crack down on barbecues on apartment balconies, which are not permitted on P.E.I. — that includes propane and charcoal barbecues, and electric grills.
A CBC News investigation has found there were 144 Hazard Compliance Orders issued to apartment buildings on P.E.I. for banned barbecues on balconies.
According to records obtained through a Freedom of Information Request filed by CBC News, more than 53 buildings in Charlottetown had unapproved barbecues on their balconies. Some buildings on the same street with the same owner were issued one violation, so the number of buildings in violation could've been higher.
"A lot of people weren't aware of it," said Charlottetown Fire Inspector Winston Bryan, who was surprised to find so many tenants with barbecues.
Fire crews respond to at least one barbecue fire a year, said Bryan, and usually it's because it hasn't been cleaned or well-maintained.
In addition to the 53 buildings in Charlottetown, provincial fire inspectors found another 91 buildings with barbecue infractions in Summerside, Stratford, Cornwall, and Montague in 2019-20.
All the buildings complied with written orders from the fire services by removing the barbecues within weeks, said officials.
Inspectors were enforcing the rule before the fire on Harley Street, but after it happened it became a priority to address widely right away, Bryan said. Since the crackdown inspectors still find some barbecues on balconies, but the number has decreased.
"Some like to have their barbecues on their deck and that's understandable," he said. "But the code is the code."
Charlottetown's Fire Prevention Bylaw and the P.E.I. Fire Marshall's Office (FMO) do allow some barbecues on balconies, if they have a direct propane feed with approved shut-offs. Propane tanks are banned from balconies or anywhere inside buildings.
Bryan recommends any tenant thinking of getting a barbecue check with the fire department first.
Both Charlottetown and provincial officials recommend mulch — which was the ignition site for the Harley Street fire — be placed at least half-a-metre away from a building, which is an industry standard.
No national rules
Nationally, though, there are no fire rules covering barbecues on apartment balconies or mulch around buildings. According to the National Research Council of Canada, it's up to the individual provinces and territories to set those rules, along with "the design and construction of new homes and buildings, as well as the maintenance and operation of fire safety systems."
In the Atlantic region, New Brunswick is the only other province where propane barbecue tanks are explicitly banned on balconies. Like P.E.I. barbecues must be installed in New Brunswick according to manufacturer instructions. Sprinkler systems are required if a building is more than three stories. And while mulch isn't banned, it is recommended that it be at least a metre from buildings.
In Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, there are no provincial rules banning barbecues, however tenants are expected to follow manufacturer instructions on distances between a barbecue and a building. In both those provinces a municipality, apartment owner or insurance company can ban them.
100s of violations
The barbecue infractions were among hundreds of Hazard Compliance Orders inspectors in Charlottetown issued to apartments, hotels, restaurants, day cares, schools, seniors homes, and businesses.
The Freedom of Information Request netted piles of reports on fire violations in the city in 2019, resulting in at least 339 orders at 149 buildings.
Violations included missed fire and sprinkler system inspections, lack of emergency lighting, disconnected smoke alarms, and fire doors wedged open.
Most problems were fixed within a couple of months, but others required repeat visits by inspectors.
Those involved a lack of a fire escape, fire extinguishers, smoke detectors, fire alarms, emergency lighting, or windows large enough to escape through in a fire.
Other cases took close to a year to resolve. And in one case, involving an inn in Charlottetown, Hazardous Compliance Orders were still outstanding more than a-year-and-a-half after they were issued, and required repeat visits to the buildings to press the owner to fix the problems. That inn now has a new owner and the work has been done, said Bryan.
30 days to fix problems
When Charlottetown inspectors issue a Hazard Compliance Order, the owner has 30 days to fix the problem.
However, Bryan said some materials take longer to order and some jobs longer to get done. So inspectors will ask the owner to provide a work order and submit a schedule to show that they have a plan to get the work done, and have procedures in place to offset any potential hazard and protect occupants.
"We want that down on paper so we can have that on file, that we can follow up on it," said Bryan.
"We will watch it, reinspect it, see what the progress is, and we will not hinder any safety with anyone," he said.
Any owners who don't co-operate can be fined $500 after the first week over a deadline, another $1,000 after the second week, and an additional $1,500 for every week after that.
Fines are handed out two or three times a year, said Bryan.
Bryan says he's not surprised by the hundreds of violations found during inspections and although some are "very serious … some could be very, very minor."
Shutting down a business, or emptying an apartment is a last resort, said Bryan. "We want to work within our community."
Inspectors did evacuate a three-storey apartment in February, evicting tenants after four years of trying to get the owner to make necessary repairs.
Fire officials said there were extensive fire code violations throughout the building, including the inability of tenants to get out safely if there was a fire.
"It was an unsafe environment," said Bryan. "It still wasn't getting addressed and we had basically no choice but for the safety of that occupant."
Annoying alarms and wooden wedges
One of the most common problems he sees is when apartment tenants disconnect their fire alarms, because they find it annoying if they are set off by burnt toast, or steam in the kitchen.
"Leave the smoke alarms alone," said Bryan. "That smoke alarm is the cheapest life saving device that you could put in your home or in your apartment. So respect it and keep it there."
If a tenant has problems with their smoke alarm, Bryan recommends they contact their landlord.
Another common violation: fire doors propped open with wooden wedges. Fire doors need to be closed if there's a fire to keep it from spreading through a building, he said.
"We've got quite a collection of wooden wedges," said Bryan, "which is a no-no."
In restaurants, grease-laden vapours in kitchen exhaust systems were a regular occurrence, prompting orders in 16 of the 36 restaurants in Charlottetown that were cited for violations.
Busy restaurants should clean them every three months and get them inspected, said Bryan.
"It's a little bit of education, getting out there and talking to the owners and providing the proper information. We find it very successful," he said.
Other common issues in restaurants were lack of fire extinguishers and out-of-date inspections for them and sprinkler systems.
Charlottetown fire inspectors found issues with nine nursing homes and assisted care facilities, such as open fire doors, a lack of emergency lighting and fire alarms.
Bryan works with business owners to help them put fire safety plans in place, and his office offers training on fire drills and how to use a fire extinguisher.
"We'll come and observe, put our input in, help out in any way," he said.
'A really great team approach'
While initially the idea of an inspector roaming her building looking for problems seemed intimidating, Melody McInnis now sees it as a bonus.
"It's always so helpful. I feel so much better afterward, knowing everything is covered," said McInnis, property manager of four Chesapeake residences in Charlottetown and Summerside, each with between 30 and 60 units.
During Bryan's annual inspections, McInnis says she learns something new about fire prevention every time, such as the need to keep sprinkler heads free of paint, and that fire extinguishers need to be mounted five feet above floor level.
"It's turned into a really great team approach," said McInnis.
"It makes me know that I am providing the safest building possible and I think our tenants feel that as well. So it's a good feeling at the end of the day to know that you are providing a safe place."
Across the province
The P.E.I. Fire Marshall's Office inspects about 550 buildings a year, including day cares and kindergartens, apartments, nursing homes, and all government buildings — and here too, most inspections turn up some violations.
The FMO has started doing annual inspections of day cares and kindergartens, instead of every three years, after a recommendation for the change from P.E.I.'s Auditor General.
Businesses, apartments and industry are inspected on request, or if there is a complaint.
Building owners have 15 days to fix a problem or ask for an extension. The FMO fines one or two owners a year for failing to do that — fines range from $200 to $5,000.
The office said most property owners do comply when they're issued an order, as they're told their insurance rates will go up if there is a fire, and if a fire results in a death or serious injury the owner could be charged criminally with arson by negligence.
Fire safety changes
Killam Properties rebuilt its apartment building on Harley Street after the fire. It's four storeys now, so required to have sprinkler system. Killam took extra steps though, installing sprinklers on the balconies, and small stones have replaced the landscaping mulch.
Loyola Griffin said he lost just about everything in the fire.
He's now living in another Killam property beside his former building, along with many of his former neighbours.
"I've got such a great group of people to live with," said Griffin.
While some of his neighbours may consider him a hero, he said he did what anyone would do.
All his neighbours look out for one another, he said, as became clear the night of the fire.
"We're all the best of friends."