London Free Press: No working smoke alarms in packed home gutted by near-fatal fire: Probe
Posted February 7, 2023
An investigation into a near-fatal fire one year ago at a London bungalow packed with students found it didn’t have any working smoke alarms at the time of the blaze.
But the London fire department didn’t issue any fines or charges against the owners of the property, The Free Press has learned. City hall officials refuse to say if officials there took any action.
Three young women from India were pulled out of the burning house at 1281 Hillcrest Ave., through a basement window by two neighbours.
Twelve others escaped on their own about 3 a.m. in the Feb. 1, 2022, blaze.
An investigation by the Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM) determined the blaze was accidental.
“Further, the OFM investigation found that no working smoke alarms were present on the property,” said a spokesperson with the fire marshal’s office, whose investigators also found the home was divided into eight rooms and there were 14 beds.
According to Ontario’s fire code, all homes are required to have a working smoke alarm on every storey and outside all sleeping areas. In rental units, it’s the responsibility of the landlord to comply with the rule. Failing to comply with requirements can result in a $360 ticket or a fine of up to $50,000 for individuals or $100,000 for corporations.
When asked about whether any charges had been laid or fines levied against the owners of the Hillcrest Avenue home, a spokesperson with the London fire department said they didn’t have any fines or charges listed and that there were no open investigations in relation to the property.
When pressed as to why no penalties had been issued by the department, given the findings of the fire marshal’s office, a second spokesperson, this time from city hall, responded saying: “There is no more information to provide from the London fire department.”
“I think it’s horrendous that there’s no fines or punishment for a landlord who put people at risk like that,” said Clair Wittnebel, a local leader with tenants’ group ACORN. “If lives had been lost, the money wouldn’t have brought them back but having the punishment, it disincentivizes future people from taking this risk.”
It’s unclear if city bylaw officials have issued any fines or charges of their own against owners Qasim Qasim and Huma Ahmad, who in 2021 bought the property that ran as an unlicensed rental mainly for international students from India.
Citing “provincial privacy legislation,” the same city hall spokesperson said the city’s bylaw department couldn’t provide answers to Free Press questions, including whether the city’s own investigation into alleged violations at the property had been completed and if any charges or fines had been issued.
Since the blaze, city hall has also refused to answer questions about its response to complaints raised by neighbours about the Hillcrest Avenue home that were filed in 2017 and again in 2021 and included concerns about overcrowding, garbage and debris on the property.
At the time of the fire, officials said a fire department report mentioning the large number of people living at the house was the first time occupancy issues had been flagged.
But a neighbour told The Free Press he’d already complained about the number of residents at the house, backing his claims with time-stamped emails sent to city hall as recently as 2021.
Jacqueline Thompson, executive director of LifeSpin, said she wasn’t surprised about the lack of clarity coming from the city’s bylaw department. Her agency, which advocates for low-income people in London, has faced several issues when reporting bylaw violations involving housing, Thompson said.
“People report them and they get no response and they get no report on what’s being done. They don’t even know if the city ever goes to check because they don’t tell them,” she said. “So it’s a broken system, and it needs to be fixed because property standard violations are a huge issue about housing in our community.”
Wittnebel, the ACORN leader, said city hall’s position of secrecy is unacceptable.
“We need transparency,” she said. “We need to know what’s going on. Keeping the public in the dark is not acceptable.”
When reached by phone, Qasim declined comment, saying: “This is a very sensitive topic for me. I don’t want to answer any kind of questions,” before hanging up.
The Free Press could not reach Ahmad.
The Hillcrest Avenue home remains uninhabited, but a neighbour said some work is being done on the property.
A City of London notice taped to a window shows the city has now issued to the owners a permit for an “apartment/multi unit building.” The permit was issued on Sept. 16, 2022.
Written by Jonathan Juha for the London Free Press