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Comment: February 2014

The fire at an under-construction student apartment building in Kingston, Ont., in December has become a political football; everyone’s talking about it but no one’s saying much.

February 10, 2014
By Laura King


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The fire at an under-construction student apartment building in Kingston, Ont., in December has become a political football; everyone’s talking about it but no one’s saying much.

The lower level was a parkade; the second level was a wood-frame basement, only 50 per cent below grade. Technically, the structure was six storeys, but it met height requirements for four-storey wood-frame construction.

The building was massive – almost 50,000 square feet (that’s 20, 2,500 square-foot homes, or most of a suburban street), but when it burned, the fire affected a 134,000-square-foot area: houses and businesses caught fire; people evacuated.

Workers were endangered – not only 68-year-old Adam Jastrezbski and the helicopter rescue crew members who plucked him from the end of a crane 150 feet in the air, but also construction workers who were trapped on the upper floor, because the single stairway exit was blocked.

British Columbia already allows six-storey combustible construction. There are proposals to amend the Ontario and national building codes to permit the same. Studies have shown that once the buildings are built with all the necessary fire-protection measures there is no greater risk than there is with four-storey wood-frame buildings. And if I’m reading correctly, the proposed amendments to the national code and, presumably – eventually – Ontario’s, do indeed include increased safety measures, such as better access for fire vehicles and water supply to the site when combustible materials arrive.

I don’t understand, though, why construction sites don’t need better fire-safety measures now – or, maybe specifically, wood-frame construction sites. Why was it OK to have only one accessible exit from the Kingston structure? Was it OK?

The Ontario Ministry of Labour’s regulation 213/91 sets out fire-safety measures for construction sites; there must be working fire extinguishers and adequate exits – although adequate is not defined. A safety officer for a national construction company told me the rules are vague and that, really, it’s up to contractors to set standards to protect workers.

The concrete industry has launched a national campaign against mid-rise combustible construction. Of course it has. Wood is cheaper and the concrete people will lose money.

Although Jastrezbski survived, he will be forever traumatized. If the building had been six storeys and, therefore, the heat more intense and the flames higher, would he have made it?

In Ontario, the bill to allow six-storey wood-frame construction is called the Forestry Industry Revitalization Act. Ontario’s housing ministry website says forestry is a key economic indicator identified in the growth plan for Northern Ontario, and new demand for wood would support growth. Which is great. Unless you’re the guy trapped on a boom waiting for a chopper to rescue you as flames lick at your heels.


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