POLITICS

Government knew building in fatal Iqaluit fire a trap: former fire marshal

03/06/2012 12:40 EST | Updated 05/06/2012 05:12 EDT
IQALUIT, Nunavut - Nunavut's former fire marshal says the territorial government should have known an apartment block that was the scene of a fatal blaze didn't meet modern building codes.

Tony Noakes, who lost his job in May 2010 after he voiced related concerns, says similar problems exist throughout the territory.

"I'm concerned government hasn't implemented any recommendations I put forward in my report in 2009," Noakes, who now lives in Lyndhurst, Ont., said Tuesday. "Maybe something could have been done to save these people.

"It's not a far stretch to say there's gross negligence here."

At least two people died when a 22-unit block in the White Row apartments went up in flames on the frigid night of Feb. 27. The building was being used as a residence for Nunavut Arctic College and all the tenants but one were students or their families.

Some 83 people were forced outside in -50 C temperatures and lost everything in the fire.

Reports have said the two who died were adult children of an Arctic College student. Remains of one person were found Friday and police reported Monday that a second set of remains had been found.

An RCMP forensic team was on the site.

White Row was built about 35 years ago — well before Nunavut was created and Iqaluit named as its capital. Noakes pointed to a fire inspection dated Jan. 23, 2000, that outlined a series of structural problems with White Row's 200 block.

The biggest problem was that individual units didn't have adequate fire-resistant separation walls between them, said the report. It also noted that existing drainage, waste and ventilation pipes should have been sealed off with fire-resistant drywall.

The White Row units that burned were part of the 300 block, not the 200 block. But Noakes says all parts of the complex would have had the same problems.

"They were all built the same way. All had the same issues."

Landlord Nunastar Properties said repairs were made and inspected in the 200 block after the inspection report.

Spokeswoman Kristin Scott said Nunastar buildings get regular fire inspections.

"All of our buildings have received fire safety-related upgrades over the years and are subject to annual inspections of fire safety equipment," she said.

Noakes maintained that isn't enough.

"There is a substantial difference between a fire inspection and a building inspection," he said. "Fire inspectors can’t see through walls to confirm if safety issues are present."

Noakes said such problems are endemic in Nunavut, which until recently had no building inspectors to ensure construction met safety standards in the national building code.

"Any building that has been built in Nunavut has not been checked by building inspectors," he said.

"It may have been looked at by fire inspectors, but that's only from a fire inspection standpoint. It has nothing to do with construction."

Noakes said he made that point, among others, at a 2009 meeting with officials from the territorial government.

"The deputy minister said the government will not be made to do anything by any arm of the government — including the fire marshal's office," Noakes recalled. "It'll decide on its own what it will do."

A spokesman from the territorial government was not immediately available for comment.

Iqaluit Mayor Madeleine Redfern said the city hired its first building inspector early last year.

"There have been concerns expressed in the past that without having an inspector ... it was possible to have a number of buildings in our community that may not have met the code."

Noakes was hired in May 2009. That June, he filed a 60-page report detailing deficiencies at the Baffin Correctional Centre, Nunavut's main prison, that concluded the building was so unsafe that jailing offenders there amounted to criminal negligence.

In May 2010, one year after getting a raise following his first year on the job, Noakes was fired. He hasn't worked in firefighting since.

He recalled Tuesday the advice he was given on his arrival in Iqaluit to begin his new job.

"Don't let them put you in White Row. It's going to burn down some day."

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton