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Stay-at-home measures contribute to spike in residential fires
April 27, 2020
Francine Kopun

Keeping everyone home to fight the spread of COVID-19 has had an unintended consequence.

Officials in Toronto, Brampton, Vaughan and Oshawa say the number of reported fires has increased during the lockdown.

In the first few weeks of the lockdown, the number of fires in Toronto jumped by 17 per cent over the previous year, according to Toronto Fire Chief Matthew Pegg, who is also leading the city’s emergency response to the pandemic.

Fatalities from fires in Toronto are also up: seven so far this year, compared to four during the same period last year.

“It’s an alarming trend, almost double what we were seeing this time last year,” said Pegg.

The leading cause of residential fires is unattended cooking, and more people home means more people cooking. It also means more people smoking at home, another leading cause of home fires, said Pegg.

“Without any doubt, there is increased residential fire activity, directly correlated to us being home more than we normally are,” said Pegg.

The reported residential fires include a three-alarm blaze in a 21-storey condo building on George Street between Adelaide and Richmond Street East on Thursday that blew out windows and forced residents onto the sidewalk.

An improperly extinguished cigarette is believed to be the source of that blaze, according to Pegg.

No one died in that fire, but since the beginning of the year there have been four fire deaths in multi-unit residential buildings in Toronto, two deaths in single-family detached homes, and one in a semi-detached home.

The situation prompted a safety campaign from Toronto Fire Services on social media that Pegg said had helped cut the increase from 17 per cent to seven per cent as of Friday morning.

Brampton Fire Chief Bill Boyes said the period between January and April 15 saw a six per cent increase over the same period in 2019 in reported fires in his city. Like Pegg, Boyes pointed to the fact that people are spending more time at home as a factor.

He said his department has been trying to educate the public -- warning them to make sure that if they’re smoking in the garage they properly extinguish their cigarette butts, and cautioning them against overloading electrical outlets.

“I know it’s hard to compete with the news cycle that is COVID, but we’re trying to make it top of mind,” said Boyes.

The story is the same in Oshawa, where there were 125 structural fires in the first quarter of 2020, which includes things like home electrical fires, compared to 71 in the fourth quarter of 2019, according to Fire Chief Derrick Clark.

“What I’ve noticed is there are a lot of small incidences -- washing machines, rubbish fires, hot water heaters, people cooking stuff, dryer vents -- because everyone is home,” said Clark.

“A lot of small fires, fires originating maybe from wires in attics or things like that … things that are overheating.”

All three chiefs said fire departments are getting fewer calls overall, because with significantly less traffic on the roads they are being summoned to fewer accidents. Fire calls, however, are up across the board.

According to the City of Vaughan, fires were up 22 per cent between March 17 to April 24. The majority of cases were vehicle and grass fires. One quarter of the vehicle fires were related to arson.

Firefighters have also had to adjust the way they work as COVID-19 continues to spread in the community through close contact.

At an active blaze, firefighters always wear self-contained breathing apparatus, so they don’t have to be differently equipped. But those operating elevators in a building during an alarm call, or working on a building’s fire alarm panel, for example, now wear masks.

In order to respect the rules of social distancing, they’re having to call more buses to big fires that require a building evacuation, because they don’t want too many people sheltered in any one vehicle.

“Whereas we might normally put 20 or 30 people on a bus, now we would decrease that capacity and try to space people out,” said Boyes.

Because more people are at home, more have to be evacuated in the event of a fire in a condo or rental apartment building, which requires more crews at the scene, said Pegg. And once the building has been evacuated, residents have to be kept farther apart from each other.

“It causes the footprint of a fire to get much bigger than it normally would,” said Pegg. “The amount of space we’re taping off, that footprint gets bigger because everybody needs more space.”

The chiefs are asking the public not to leave cooking unattended, and to ensure cigarettes are properly extinguished.

Being anxious or sleep-deprived -- as many people have been during the past six weeks in social isolation, absorbing calamitous news at every turn -- can make a person more forgetful, according to Simona Ghetti, professor at the University of California-Davis Center for Mind and Brain.

Multi-tasking could make people even more likely to forget that frying pan on the back burner. Daily life is filled with such episodes of forgetfulness, Ghetti points out. But they go unnoticed because they are not as consequential as leaving a pot to burn and start a kitchen fire. She recommends being deliberate about cooking.

“If you are really tired or stressed out, it’s always worth putting timers on as a reminder, so that you’re a little bit outsourcing your need to remember,” she said. “I think those are small measures we can take to make our life a little easier.”

And safer.

“We’re distracted, we’re antsy, we all have cabin fever. It’s really easy to drop your attention,” said Pegg. “This is a time we have to be extra vigilant.”