Fire marshal, coroner say more time needed

The death of five Porter Creek residents from carbon monoxide poisoning in late January has raised many questions that remain unanswered.

The death of five Porter Creek residents from carbon monoxide poisoning in late January has raised many questions that remain unanswered.

The summary of the fire marshal’s report, released last week, includes only cursory details. It said an ice plug formed over the chimney, in part because the masonry had crumbled, impeding the flow of flue gases.

The NDP Opposition alleges the oil furnace was improperly installed, but that has not been confirmed by the fire marshal or other authorities.

The fire marshal’s entire report contains a fuller explanation of what happened. But it isn’t for public consumption, at least for now.

“In my report, there may be facts that people say they want to know,” said fire marshal Dennis Berry. “But there’s so much context my report doesn’t capture.”

So the report’s full contents will remain under wraps until the Yukon’s coroner, Sharon Hanley, releases her own report on the deaths.

“To release it would do two things,” said Berry. “It prejudices anything she does later on because people will look back and say, ‘Well, there’s your answer.’ And it doesn’t allow her to be objective in terms of recommendations.

“Her investigation could become myopic if public pressure is saying, ‘This is the reason.’ My report is just one of several reports.”

The fire marshal has released this much: “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 buildup of ice.”

That suggests the furnace was improperly tuned, said Peter Harach. He’s a red-seal certified oil-burner mechanic who has become a vocal critic of the territory’s refusal to regulate the industry.

Furnace efficiency can be a dangerous thing, if a modern furnace is connected to an old, brick-and-mortar chimney, as was the case at the Porter Creek house.

That’s because efficient furnaces keep more heat in the home, creating the potential for discharged water vapour to freeze.

Such furnaces should be tuned to operate safely during the coldest days of the year, said Harach, so “it has enough heat to keep the chimney thawed.”

Based on what’s known, it appears “someone tuned it for efficiency,” he said.

It’s also important that a metal liner runs from the top to bottom of a masonry chimney that’s connected to a high-efficiency chimney. It remains unclear if that was the case in the Porter Creek Home.

The decision to not release the fire marshal’s report is also telling, said Harach. “That to me says they’re all looking at who could become liable.”

But Berry cautioned against drawing early conclusions.

“If we just start going off on single issues, it’s going to be really tough for the coroner to come down with an objective report, because everyone will have already made up their mind. It’s in the public’s best interest to say, ‘Let’s give the coroner the time to do it.’

“Nobody wants to know more what happened to these people than me and the coroner and the people who were there to go and identify them and deal with that poor family,” he said.

Berry’s summary report urged residents to check chimneys for ice during cold snaps and ensure their homes are equipped with carbon monoxide detectors. Judging by how quickly detectors have flown off store shelves, he considers that bit to be a success.

“There are things Yukoners can do today. And we’ve put that out there.”

The coroner hasn’t yet decided whether she will hold an inquest into the deaths. Either way, she will produce a report with findings.

She can’t say when this will happen.

“I’m being asked about that all the time,” said Hanley. “With all due respect, I’ll make that decision when I make it. I can’t be pressured into it. So I can’t give a time frame.”

Contact John Thompson at johnt@yukon-news.com