The Yukon Coroner’s office has ruled Donna Tull’s death as accidental.
Tull, 69, died on April 22, after a fire completely destroyed her home on the Old Alaska Highway in Ibex Valley.
In a report released last week, chief coroner Kirsten Macdonald found Tull died from smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning. A faulty heat trace caused the fire, the report says.
The heat trace was located in a well underneath a deck. Heat traces are supposed to keep pipes from freezing. But this one was very old and had stopped working properly, fire marshal Dennis Berry said this week.
The trace was installed correctly, and nothing could have prevented the fire, he said, noting that replacing heat traces can be impractical for homeowners.
What’s most important is that smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors work properly and people know how to leave their homes safely in a fire, said Berry.
“No matter where you live in Canada, if you’re relying on the fire department to get you out, you’re playing with your life,” said Berry. “Fire moves very fast, and you have to have a home escape plan, you have to get yourself out.”
And that was a challenge for Tull. She lived alone, and friends, family members and a government worker helped her with daily living tasks. She used home oxygen and a walker – she had chronic swelling in her feet. She slept on the main floor because she couldn’t climb the stairs to reach the bedroom in the loft.
Her “inability to self-evacuate was the most important factor in her not surviving,” says the coroner’s report.
Tull wasn’t planning on living at the family home forever. She was considering selling it and moving to Whitehorse. The morning of the fire, Tull met with a realtor, her son and daughter-in-law at her home.
The realtor and family members weren’t her only visitors that day. Her home-care worker also came by with Tull’s groceries. The worker normally visited twice a week. The worker was at Tull’s home from noon until around 2 p.m. Shortly before the worker left, Tull said she was tired and was going to have a nap.
It didn’t last long. Tull had a Lifeline System in her home. Clients push a button to contact a personal response assistant if they need help. At 2:46 p.m., she sent a “help needed” auto alert. A note on the incident report shows a moment later Tull indicated she needed the fire department. It was hard for the operator to get more information because a dog was barking loudly in the background.
The Lifeline operator called the Whitehorse Fire Department. Because the fire was outside of the city, the operator was told to call the Ibex Valley Fire Department. The operator then called that department. This communications delay added five minutes to the response time.
Firefighters arrived on the scene at 2:53 p.m, seven minutes after the first call to Lifeline. Firefighters from Whitehorse, Hootalinqua and Golden Horn all responded. Tull was still inside when firefighters arrived. But heavy fire and smoke prevented them from entering the home.
Inside, Tull was contacting emergency services. She phoned 911 at 3:14 and told responders the fire had started to come into her home. Alarms could be heard in the background before the line went dead.
Tull died at approximately 3:30, according to the coroner’s report.
Firefighters stayed on site until the early evening. Tull’s body was recovered the next day, when it was safe to enter the burned building.
In her only recommendation, Macdonald asked that Lifeline Services applications for rural Yukon residents clearly identify who the closest emergency responders are, so response times are as short as possible. Berry met with representatives this week to make sure their information is correct, he said. As far as he is aware, the company had accurate information but for some reason, the system failed, he said.
The company is aware of the report, and is conducting its own internal review and investigation, spokesperson Santina Sandra Giuliano said in an email. It extends its condolences to the family.
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