House fires rise in wake of pandemic

By HUB SmartCoverage Team on July 3rd, 2020

A spike in careless fires has been an unintended consequence of more people staying at home because of COVID-19.

Fire officials - along with insurance and risk professionals - all report the same trend.

Sudbury’s Deputy Fire Chief Jesse Oshell agrees the numbers are up.

“We're seeing a lot more of them than we normally would," Oshell told CBC News, and it appears to be related to people spending more time at home. "We've been working really hard to try and get a lot of prevention messages out to the public who are now at home, or have been mostly at home isolating, working from home, where normally they wouldn't be.”

Judging by some examples, it appears it’s necessary.

“Some people are putting cardboard in ovens and putting items such as metal in the microwave oven that should not be there,” said Michele Farley, president of FCS Fire Consulting Service, told Canadian Underwriter in a recent interview.

One fire department has even advised consumers to take their pizza out of the box before heating it, reported Farley. That’s because people are getting distracted when cooking.

“You are seeing a spike in residential fires in condos and rental units because people are at home more and cooking more,” said Jeff McCann, CEO of Apollo Insurance Solutions Ltd., in a recent interview with Canadian Underwriter.

In Ontario, fatal home fires are up 65 per cent since January compared to the same period in 2019. In Ottawa, for example, there have been more fatal fires in the first four months of 2020 than in any of the past three years, according to the city's fire department.

“Similar increases are being seen across the country. The numbers are alarming. This applies not just to single-family homes, but also to condominium buildings and multi-tenant buildings,” Farley said.

As a result, residents are being reminded of these fire safety tips:

  • Ensure all occupants know what to do in case of emergency;
  • Have a plan to escape from a fire and a pre-arranged meeting place outside; Make sure someone is designated to assist older adults, children or anyone else who needs help.
  • Always be alert and stay in the kitchen when cooking;
  • Only smoke outdoors and always use a safe method of extinguishing cigarette butts – such as putting them in an ashtray and not discarding cigarette buts in a planter.
  • Ensure smoke and carbon monoxide alarms are working properly by using the test button. If the alarm fails to sound, check and replace batteries if necessary.
  • Use care when using and recharging electronic devices such as laptops, tablets or mobile devices. Check electrical cords and charge cables to ensure they are in good condition. Don’t overload electrical circuits. Avoid placing electronics on soft surfaces like beds or upholstered furniture when recharging to avoid the risk of overheating.

About 4.7 million Canadians who do not usually work from home did so during the week of March 22 to 28, Statistics Canada reports. When those who usually work from home were included in the statistics, 39.1 per cent of the labour force, which is 6.8 million Canadians, worked from home that week.

The increase could change how property insurance is underwritten, McCann said. For example, there could be less emphasis on the quality of construction and the building’s fire safety systems, and more emphasis on what the rental units are used for and how often the clients are home, he said.

Recently, one risk professional wondered if risk-based insurance would be a good idea for homeowners the way drivers use it for auto insurance.

“Every stovetop, water pipe and door hinge is on full tilt when a home is fully occupied all day, every day,” said Dan Davis, of LexisNexis Risk Solutions. “So, it stands to reason that certain claims will naturally trend higher than others in those times.”

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