Quebec town marks first anniversary of fire at seniors’ home

This article is published by Global News on January 21, 2015. Click here to access this article and other similar content.


MONTREAL – A deep chill that recently fell over Quebec left Yves Desjardins uneasy as his thoughts turned to the tragic blaze one year ago that swept through a seniors’ home, killing 32 people.

The winds and chilly temperatures were reminiscent of the conditions that helped fuel the fire in L’Isle-Verte in January 2014 and served as a reminder to Desjardins that more needs to be done.

“We have to act, we can’t wait any longer,” said Desjardins, president of the Quebec association for elder-care facilities.

“It was extremely cold one morning and I have a fearful feeling on these days, when major fires often break out. It brings back a lot of scary memories.”

The blaze broke out just after midnight last Jan. 23, engulfing the older, three-storey wooden structure built in 1997 that had no sprinkler system. The inferno was fuelled by strong winds on what was a blisteringly cold night.

Many occupants of the part of the residence that was destroyed needed wheelchairs or walkers to get around and were on medication they took at night.

A newer wing, built in 2002, had firewalls and sprinklers and was spared.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, seniors’ advocate Susan Eng had expressed hope the staggering loss of life would translate into action across the country as there were immediate calls for stiffer rules and for sprinklers to be put in all buildings.

“You would think that would be enough to spur political action in the first instance and action by nursing-home operators across the country,” says Eng, vice-president advocacy for CARP, a group that defends the interests of seniors.

“It is true today that in fact in every single province, there are homes that are older and are not retrofitted to grade and they should be.”

With rules differing from province to province, Eng’s group has embarked on a campaign calling on the ministers responsible for nursing-home safety – at the federal, provincial and territorial level – to make it mandatory for fire sprinklers to be installed in all buildings that house seniors.

“It’s doable, it costs money and someone has to put money in there,” Eng said.

“When people put their loved ones in care, the very least they can expect is they will be safe from a preventable disaster like this.”

Stakeholders are also hopeful that a Quebec coroner who investigated the L’Isle-Verte tragedy will recommend that retrofitting older homes with sprinklers be a priority.

A spokeswoman for the Quebec coroner’s office says Cyrille Delage’s report should come later this year.

Delage, who also oversaw the inquest into a criminally set fire in 1969 at a nursing home in Quebec that claimed more than 35 lives, has said sprinklers alone will not be enough.

Testimony at the recent inquest revealed a number of shortcomings – inadequate firefighter training, convoluted building rules, and employees who were unprepared for a middle-of-the night fire evacuation.

Under Quebec’s existing rules, sprinklers are only mandatory in seniors’ residences where the occupants are not mobile.

There have been subtle moves in the province since the blaze.