Quebec seniors home fire reportedly caused by cigarette

Eight confirmed dead in tragedy; still many more missing

By Patrick Vaillancourt, News Editor

Tragedy in a small Quebec town has raised questions throughout the country about the safety of facilities which house the more vulnerable populations in Canadian society, particularly the elderly and disabled.

A fire at an elderly care home in L’Isle Verte, Quebec has devastated the small community as emergency officials have confirmed eight fatalities, with about 24 other people who remain missing at press time and are feared dead.

The fire began in the early morning hours on January 23 at the Résidence du Havre nursing home. The facility included 52 units of independent and semi-shared living quarters. Fire crews responding to the incident were hampered immediately by extremely cold weather that rendered much of their equipment useless. Fire hoses were being exposed to temperatures as low as -35C and the initial blasts of water onto the building created ice walls that further complicated rescue efforts.

While investigators have not determined with certainty the cause of the fire, sources suggest that the fire was caused by a cigarette.

Bruno Belanger, an overnight staffer at the facility, told QMI Agency that he believes a male resident began smoking in his unit after he had been refused permission to go outside shortly before the fire started. When the alarm went off, Belanger noticed smoke billowing out of the man’s room and was forced to escape the building. Firefighters were unable to gain access to all of the rooms for evacuation due to the intensity of the blaze. The vast majority of those dead or missing are those who needed wheelchairs or walkers.

The tragedy has sparked debate about the use of sprinklers in elderly care homes. Résidence du Havre did have a sprinkler system in the newer wings of the facility, but none in the original portion of the building. Many in Quebec and across the country are now calling on all governments to review their building guidelines and ensure sprinkler systems are made mandatory.

Building codes vary from province to province, and in some cases, from city to city. The federal government also has a national building code, but is never regulated or enforced.

The tragedy has gained national and international attention. Queen Elizabeth II was made aware of the tragedy and issued a statement of condolence.

“Prince Philip and I were saddened to learn of the serious fire at the seniors’ residence in L’Isle-Verte, Quebec yesterday,” read the statement from Buckingham Palace. “The Duke of Edinburgh and I send our sympathy to the families of those who have died and our thoughts and prayers to all those who have been injured in this terrible event.”

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois had cancelled the remainder of a trade mission to Davos, Switzerland upon hearing of the fire, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was in the Middle East last week, issued a statement from Amman, Jordan expressing his sadness at the incident.

“On behalf of the entire country, I offer my sincere condolences to the family and friends of those who passed away following the fire at a seniors’ residence in eastern Quebec,” Harper said. “My thoughts and prayers are also with those who remain unaccounted for, and all those who have been injured.”

Rescue efforts are ongoing, but crews have been forced to abandon plans to conduct round-the-clock operations due to weather and manpower. Extreme weather continues to complicate efforts to find those who remain missing.