Fires flare up as people hunker down
Kitchen blazes in the city have more than doubled over last year during pandemic
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 calgary.ca/fire
When firefighters respond to medical calls, “we assume that everyone is potentially an exposure risk,” says fire department spokeswoman Carol Henke.