As the Yukon’s coroner considers whether to hold an inquest into the deaths of five Porter Creek residents from carbon monoxide poisoning, a chapter of Whitehorse’s history is repeating itself.
Thirty-six years ago, an inquest looked into the death of two women who also died of carbon monoxide poisoning in their house.
Both cases involved a badly-maintained masonry chimney that plugged with ice, causing deadly fumes from the oil-burning furnace to fill the house.
Documents at the Yukon Archives show that in December 1975, this claimed the lives of Judith Armstrong, 27, and Dorothy Fraser, 61, at 312 Alexander St.
In hindsight, there were plenty of warning signs.
Armstrong complained that her furnace smelled funny when she spoke to her good friend, Jean Murphy, on the phone the night of Dec. 12.
Armstrong visited later that night and complained that her house made her eyes smart. Murphy told her to phone the landlord.
The two watched TV until around midnight, then Armstrong went home.
Around 4 a.m., Murphy’s phone rang. But when she picked it up, no one was on the line.
Later, RCMP officers found Armstrong lying dead on the floor. She was wearing her parka, apparently preparing to leave the house. The phone dangled off the hook.
The inquest that followed ruled Armstrong and Fraser’s deaths to be accidental.
It called for the chimney in question to be upgraded or replaced, and for ongoing newspaper and radio advertisements to remind homeowners to keep an eye on masonry chimneys liable to clog.
A more sweeping change was suggested by E.R. Mitchell, head of the Canadian Combustion Research Lab. He proposed requiring masonry chimneys to have a metal liner if they were connected to oil-burning furnaces to prevent water vapour in the exhaust from plugging the chimney on especially cold nights.
This proposal met resistance at the time.
“This chimney in question was not built in accordance with any code,” objected fire marshal T.G. Nairn in a letter to the Whitehorse Fire Department.
This objection – that the problem lay not with setting new rules, but ensuring the existing rules are followed – continues to be expressed by government officials, following the 2012 deaths in Porter Creek.
Today’s building code requires metal liners inside masonry chimneys that are connected to oil-burning furnaces. Unfortunately, that didn’t help Bradley and Valerie Rusk, their two children, and boarder Donald McNamee, who died in rented their home at 1606 Centennial St.
A report by the Yukon’s fire marshal office found numerous problems with the home’s furnace and chimney. Most notably, the house lacked a chimney liner.
The owner hired a contractor to install one in 1991, the report said. But there was no evidence that this work was ever done.
Instead, only two feet of pipe extended below the chimney cap. More disturbingly, this work was later approved by the city’s building inspector.
The company that did the job, True North Mechanical, no longer operates in the territory.
When firemen inspected the chimney in January, they found that masonry had badly crumbled, forming a pile at the chimney’s base. That’s believed to have slowed the flow of flue gases, contributing to ice buildup within the chimney.
But it was just one of several deadly ingredients believed to have caused the chimney to plug.
The burner was underpowered, and whoever installed it flouted a building code requirement that called for narrower flue pipe to be installed in such situations.
The building code also required whoever installed the boiler and burner to inspect the chimney. But it doesn’t appear as if anyone spotted the missing liner or other problems.
The Porter Creek house is owned by 10785 Yukon Ltd., a company that lists Fae Jamieson and Geraldine Tuton as its directors. They have so far not commented on the situation.
The fire marshal’s reports shows they may have flouted the city’s bylaws.
Homeowners need to have newly-installed boilers and burners inspected by a city building inspector, under Whitehorse’s bylaws, but they hadn’t.
In 2010, similar standards became enshrined in territorial law. But the furnace work at the Centennial Street house was likely done before that – the furnace was built in 1993, the burner in 2009.
All of this means the Yukon’s coroner has to deal with many unanswered questions.
When firefighters eventually entered the home, they found the amount of poisonous gas in the house was many times above what would trigger an alarm.
But the owners didn’t break any law by not installing one. As it stands, such detectors are only required in newer homes.
The NDP Opposition wants that changed. It also want to see the oil-burning mechanic trade regulated in the territory.
That’s the key recommendation of Rod Corea, a furnace expert who conducted a string of reports for the territorial government from 2007 to 2010.
Corea inspected 305 residential furnaces. Only four met the building code.
Corea faulted the lack of minimum standards to work as an oil-burning mechanic in the territory, concluding that “self-regulation has failed to provide minimum safety standards, and indeed has put the Yukon at risk in their oil-heated industry.”
A committee formed by the government similarly concluded four years ago that the oil-burning trade should be regulated. But that never happened.
Regulation was a non-starter with the Department of Community Services. Knowing this, officials with the Yukon Housing Corporation buried Corea’s last report and its accompanying video from public view until the NDP obtained a copy in February.
The Yukon’s previous housing minister, Jim Kenyon, has said they faced a chicken-and-egg conundrum: with so few furnace mechanics possessing nationally recognized credentials, new rules would put most out of work.
In 2009 and 2010, Yukon College offered a pilot program to train oil-burner technicians. It produced 10 graduates.
Of those, six went on to complete apprenticeships and pass their nationally recognized exam to become journeyman mechanics.
But the course ended along with the federal stimulus spending that paid for it. The college is now looking at running another course.
In 2008, Corea estimated that just five per cent of the territory’s oil-burner mechanics were certified.
The territory doesn’t know how many there are today so it has no way to know if the situation has changed.
The coroner hasn’t yet decided whether she will simply issue a report on the Porter Creek deaths or hold an inquest.
Either way, the contents of her report will help guide the government’s response, said Community Services Minister Elaine Taylor.
The NDP has called on the government to call a full-blown public inquiry.
In another case of history repeating itself, the government established another committee a few weeks ago to look at improving furnace safety. The public is invited to submit comments until April 16.
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