The president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Services says Sunday’s residential fire in St. John’s is one example of many showing that homes burn faster and hotter than they once did.
“Fires today are much, much different than they were 20, 30 years ago because of the contents we put in these homes,” said Vince Mackenzie, who is also fire Chief of the Grand Falls Windsor Fire Department.
“One time, our living rooms had a couch and a TV, but now our living rooms have a lot of plastics, a lot of synthetic material, and a lot of electronics, and we have a very high fuel load made mostly of plastics and synthetics. Therefore, when it burns, it gives off a great amount of heat because of the fuel load.”
However, Mackenzie said he would not consider either new or old homes to be “no more safe or no more dangerous than the other.”
He said the size of new homes and the more prevalent use of open-concept designs also contribute to a fire’s ability to spread.
In Grand Falls-Windsor, Mackenzie said, his department has dealt with some very serious fires in both old and new homes.
He said fires in new homes more often tend to impact neighbouring properties due to the ability of flames to travel up the vinyl siding and into the vinyl soffit panels, which then melt away and allow flames to gain entry into an attic.
Lightweight trusses engineered to hold the weight of a roof are smaller than those used to build old homes, according to Mackenzie. He said they “fail very quickly” when a fire occurs, thus leading to a roof’s collapse.
When Mackenzie fought fires 20 years ago, he said, it typically took
10-15 minutes for a space to reach the flashover point when a room bursts into a ball of flames. Today, he said, it commonly takes less than three or four minutes for a flashover to take place.
A fire in a residential subdivision on Sunday completely destroyed one home in St. John’s and caused extensive damage to another. Mackenzie spoke on a call-in radio program a day after the event, and his comments attracted the attention of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association for Newfoundland and Labrador (CHBA-NL).
It issued a news release on Tuesday asserting that “construction practices and materials are safe for families.”
Warrick Butler, owner of Butler Quality Contracting in C.B.S. and a CHBA-NL board member, said Mackenzie’s assessment of how quickly homes now burn appears to be accurate.
“I don’t think the house is less safe for the homeowners, if that’s the question, but from their standpoint of burning faster, yeah, it definitely seems to be,” he said.
“But you’ve also got to appreciate now, too, that the older homes have wooden clapboard and everything on them too, and new homes have vinyl siding on them. The houses are built a lot closer than they ever were. There’s a lot of factors that are going to come into play on it, for sure.”
He said building codes are constantly evolving for the purpose of ensuring safety.
“The safety, the integrity of the house under normal circumstances or even your general use, general purposes — it’s probably better.”
Butler notes fire alarms in new homes are now hard-wired and connected.
“From a homeowner’s standpoint, nothing has really changed. It’s probably advanced, if nothing else.”
Building codes require a smoke alarm on each level of a home and in each sleeping area. Mackenzie said the latter rule is relatively new. The promotion of residential sprinkler systems is on the agenda of both insurance companies and fire departments across Canada, according to Mackenzie.
“You’ve got to remember one thing about the building codes. Building codes are minimum standards. You can still build a home to building code, and building codes are built with safety in mind, but they’re built for structural stability, and building codes are usually built to maintain the building for enough time for people to escape.”
While the homes are perfectly safe, he added that “no home is safe on fire.”
Butler thinks sprinkler systems make for a smart addition to a new home, but notes they increase costs for the buyer.