Fires flare up as peo­ple hunker down

Kitchen blazes in the city have more than dou­bled over last year dur­ing pan­demic

Calgary Herald - - CITY + REGION - ALANNA SMITH al­smith@post­ Twit­ter: @alan­na_­smithh

Cook­ing-re­lated blazes are on the rise in Calgary with more peo­ple at home be­cause of the COVID -19 pan­demic.

Carol Henke, spokes­woman for the Calgary fire depart­ment, said calls re­lated to kitchen or cook­ing fires have more than dou­bled since the first cases of COVID-19 in March when com­pared to the same time pe­riod last year.

“We can as­sume that a lot more peo­ple are home right now and, if you’re pay­ing at­ten­tion to so­cial me­dia, a lot more peo­ple are bak­ing bread or cook­ing things try­ing to stay busy,” said Henke.

There were 11 calls be­tween March 12 and May 5 last year and 24 this year. The ser­vice is also see­ing a spike in out­door fires, mostly re­lated to dis­carded trash, from 16 calls to 40, re­spec­tively, dur­ing the same stretch of time.

Mo­tor ve­hi­cle col­li­sions, un­sur­pris­ingly, are on the de­cline with less traf­fic on the roads, but over­all calls are slightly up from last year. While fire­fight­ers are used to at­tend­ing a range of in­ci­dents, the

COVID-19 cri­sis has forced them to adapt to what many are call­ing the “new nor­mal.”

“Our job as fire­fight­ers, fun­da­men­tally, is stress­ful ev­ery sin­gle day be­cause we get called to such a wide va­ri­ety of in­ci­dents,” said Henke. “Re­gard­less of the pan­demic, you never know what you’re en­coun­ter­ing so it def­i­nitely adds an­other layer. But if there is one thing that fire­fight­ers are it is flex­i­ble and able to adapt very quickly.”

Now fire ser­vice mem­bers are dressed head-to-toe in per­sonal pro­tec­tive equip­ment, in­clud­ing med­i­cal jump­suits with hoods, masks, gloves, shoe cov­ers and face shields when at­tend­ing med­i­cal calls. Ad­di­tion­ally, only two mem­bers go in­side a res­i­dence, rather than the en­tire crew, to limit pos­si­ble ex­po­sure.

“When we re­spond, we as­sume that ev­ery­one is po­ten­tially an ex­po­sure risk,” said Henke, adding dis­patch alerts them of pos­i­tive COVID-19 cases when pos­si­ble.

The re­sponse to fires has re­mained the same con­sid­er­ing fire­fight­ers al­ready wear spe­cial equip­ment, in­clud­ing a mask that seals around the face and con­nects to a com­pressed air tank and cus­tom fire gloves and boots to use in hot and smoky en­vi­ron­ments.

At the fire halls, san­i­ta­tion mea­sures, per­sonal hy­giene and hand­wash­ing have in­ten­si­fied. Per­son­nel must en­ter and exit through des­ig­nated doors, get their tem­per­a­ture checked upon en­try and prac­tice phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing when pos­si­ble.

“I think the fire depart­ment has adapted very well and very quickly,” said Henke.

“The thing is we don’t work in iso­la­tion. Each fire sta­tion, each fire crew is a very strong team so you never feel like you are do­ing some­thing on your own. The ca­ma­raderie is very strong.”

She said this is more im­por­tant now than ever con­sid­er­ing the un­cer­tainty the pan­demic brings.

Res­i­den­tial fires are many times the re­sult of cook­ing and elec­tri­cal mishaps, said Henke, and out­door fires can largely be linked to im­proper cig­a­rette dis­posal and items like bar­be­cues and fire pits left unat­tended.

As the COVID-19 pan­demic drags on, Henke said peo­ple need to be more vig­i­lant than ever in their homes.

She said it’s an op­por­tune time for home­own­ers to test their fire alarms and iden­tify a fire es­cape plan while ob­serv­ing proper pre­ven­tion mea­sures, like dis­pos­ing of flammable ma­te­ri­als safely.

“We’re all prob­a­bly feel­ing off-kil­ter a lit­tle bit due to our change in rou­tines and work­ing from home and it can be easy to then for­get some of those safety pre­cau­tions that we should be tak­ing — some­thing as easy as re­mem­ber­ing to turn the space heater off when you leave the base­ment,” said Henke.

Even the most pre­pared can run into trou­ble, she said, draw­ing at­ten­tion to two sep­a­rate res­i­den­tial fires that de­stroyed mul­ti­ple homes in Calgary last week­end.

“You could be do­ing ev­ery­thing right and maybe your neigh­bour for­got to do some­thing,” said Henke. “You need to pre­pared re­gard­less.”

On Satur­day, a large blaze in the north­west forced the evac­u­a­tion of three homes. The fol­low­ing day, flames de­stroyed two homes in the south­east and dam­aged an­other two. Bat­tal­ion Chief Alis­tair Robin said the Sun­day fire might be a re­sult of im­proper dis­posal of em­bers.

No in­juries were re­ported at ei­ther in­ci­dent.

Fire safety tips can be found at

When fire­fight­ers re­spond to med­i­cal calls, “we as­sume that ev­ery­one is po­ten­tially an ex­po­sure risk,” says fire depart­ment spokes­woman Carol Henke.

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