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Fire marshal confirms suspected cause of Porter Creek deaths

Yukon fire marshal Dennis Berry says the death of five people in their Porter Creek home in January was an accident caused by a chimney blocked by ice and debris.

Yukon fire marshal Dennis Berry says the death of five people in their Porter Creek home in January was an accident caused by a chimney blocked by ice and debris.

That’s what certified oil-burner mechanic John Matheson believed had happened when he first learned about the death of Bradley and Valerie Rusk, their two children and boarder Donald McNamee.

In January, he told the News that many Yukon homes were in the same situation because unqualified mechanics were hooking up new, high-efficiency furnaces to older chimneys, without taking the proper precautions.

He said old chimneys should be lined or a sensor should be installed that shuts off the furnace when a chimney becomes blocked.

His concerns mirrored those brought to the government’s attention nearly five years ago when the territory’s oil-burner industry received a dismal, failing grade.

Three reports prepared for the Yukon Housing Corporation between 2007 and 2010 showed most of the oil-burner equipment inspected did not meet building and safety standards.

The author of the reports, Rod Corea, with Ontario’s NRG Resources Inc., urged the government to regulate the industry.

But it never did.

“An ice-blockage in the last two feet of the chimney caused a build up of noxious gases, including carbon monoxide, in the house,” said the fire marshal’s summary.

“Low-temperature flue gases coming from the high-efficiency burner in the boiler combined with the extremely cold temperatures at the time contributed to the build-up of ice,” the summary said.

Berry’s investigation also found the old chimney at 1606 Centennial St. had deteriorated inside, causing a build up of debris at the bottom.

“This brick-and-mortar debris obstructed and slowed the flow of flue gases from the furnace to the exterior of the house,” the summary said.

“The fire marshal’s office recommends that residents, whether homeowners or renters, please check for icing on your chimney, especially during cold snaps and ensure you have properly installed carbon monoxide and smoke detectors.

“We also recommend that people ensure their heating system is property serviced and maintained on a regular basis.”

Since January’s tragedy, the Yukon Housing Corporation has started to offer similar advice along with detailed checklists for home-heating and ventilation systems.

“We were getting quite a few calls from people that wanted information and so we placed the information we had in-house on the website,” said Marc Perrault, director of program delivery for the corporation.

“From our perspective, we feel that it’s very important that homeowners familiarize themselves with the systems and what they need to do. Homeowners can take an active role. I’m not placing onus on them to take responsibility, it’s just that that is an option, that homeowners can familiarize themselves and then they can ask the right questions of the right person.”

It was calls from both the public and industry that prompted the corporation to commission the Corea reports, he said.

And they were not put on the shelf, Perrault added.

A committee was formed with various municipal and territorial bureaucrats and industry, he said.

“From there, the Yukon Housing Corporation took it upon itself to take some of the steps that were recommended, that we have the ability to help with, and that was basically to conduct education programs for homeowners and raise public awareness. That’s what we’ve done and what we’ll continue to do.

“We don’t have authority over the regulations or legislation surrounding this, but we’re working with other departments to give them the information they need to accurately consider what changes they may want to make. That’s really all we can do. It’s been ongoing for the last four years.”

Since the Porter Creek tragedy, the corporation has also fast-tracked its plan to put detectors in all of its units even though they are only mandatory for homes younger than 2005.

But the detectors are really a last line of defence, Perrault said. By the time one goes off, the home is already filling with the odourless gas.

Manitoba became the first province to legislate carbon monoxide detectors in 2010 after a family of six was treated for poisoning.

At the time of the Porter Creek tragedy, the Yukon government said it wanted to wait until the investigations were completed before considering any changes.

Now, despite the fire marshal’s report and toxicology results confirming three of the five deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning - results for Brad Rusk and Donald McNamee are still not complete - the territorial government said it is still too early to comment.

“It will take some time to look at it and digest it and determine the next steps and what may need to be done,” said cabinet spokesperson Elaine Schiman.

“It’s still too early. It will likely take some time. I don’t know exactly how much.”

But the NDP isn’t waiting. This week it called for a public inquiry into the tragic event.

“This was not an act of God, but a preventable tragedy,” said leader Liz Hanson in a news release Tuesday.

“These tragic deaths must not be in vain and we must ensure this tragedy drives us to improve community safety and prevent future death and injury. The ‘how’ these people died needs to be expanded: Yukoners have a right to know how our laws, regulations, services, and inaction failed these people.”

Yukon chief coroner Sharon Hanley said she hasn’t decided yet whether to hold an inquest.

As for a public inquiry, she said that would have to be called by the territorial government.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at