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Fewer but stronger fires

Report finds number of blazes down, but are coming in bigger and faster

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

It’s a statistic fire chief Steve Meringer has no problem boasting about.

In the Oshawa Fire Services’ annual report presented to committee on June 18, numbers show that fire incidents are generally on the decline, and for three years in a row, Oshawa has not had a single fatality from a fire.

“That is really the most important,” Meringer said.

In total, fire services dealt with 97 fire incidents in 2014, which follows the trend in the past years which saw 142 fires in 2011, drop to 130 in 2012 and 116 in 2013.

The three big culprits of fires in Oshawa relate to cooking equipment, which caused 15 incidents last year, and open flame tools or smoker’s articles, responsible for 17 incidents.

Of the 97 blazes responded to by Oshawa fire services last year, 69 of them involved a structure fire, which is a decrease of 10 per cent over the last five-year trend of 80 structure fires a year.

Meringer attributes the declining statistics to public education through fire services programs, including working with the Durham District School Board to educate students and the recently-launched Think Ahead program, which helps firefighters get acquainted with the homes of children with disabilities to better respond if there was ever an incident.

“The (most) lives we can save are through prevention and education…through the fires that never start,” he said. “I truly believe we get the best bang for our buck on that side of the table.”

While the numbers are going down, the fires themselves are going up – in size that is.

In recent years, fires are getting larger and growing faster, Meringer explained.

Steve Boyd, the deputy fire chief, tells The Express this is due to a pair of factors that havebecome a part of construction and our lifestyle.

The first issue is a building method known as lightweight construction.

“It’s a construction technique that allows them to build homes quicker, use lighter materials and structurally they’re just as strong, in terms of the load-bearing weight,” Boyd says. “But in a fire, they weaken a little quicker.”

This weakening is mainly the result of the trusses constructed in the large peaks of homes, which are held together with metal gusset plates, Boyd says.

“Structurally, it’s really strong. When you load it up with something, you can put plywood on it, put the shingles on it, and it holds everything very nice and tightly,” he says. “But what happens in a fire is the metal is the first thing to fail. As soon as a few of them fail, the whole thing comes down like a house of cards.”

This past September, a fire on Norland Circle that caused approximately $1 million damage is an example of what a lightweight construction fire can look like.

Combined with the lightweight construction, homes are now essentially filled to the brink with combustibles.

“Fifty years ago, when I was a kid, your furniture was either cotton or leather…there wasn’t a lot of plastic and things like that. Nowadays, everything is either plastic or foam filled,” Boyd says.

And these items burn faster and hotter.

“The fires get bigger quicker and combine that with lightweight construction and it creates challenges for us,” Boyd says.

To combat this, fire services focuses on education – education of not only their firefighters, but the public as well, because if the fires don’t start in the first place there’s no issue, Boyd says.