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Coroner's office to probe cluster of fire deaths on Island reserves

Jan 26 2012

The coroner's office will investigate the recent cluster of fire deaths on Vancouver Island First Nations reserves to see if there are common denominators.

"We are keenly aware this is the third incident, with four deaths, in a little over a month," said regional coroner Matt Brown after two young boys died in a house fire Wednesday morning. "We are taking it very seriously and we want to see if there are common factors."

It is not yet known what caused Wednesday's fire on the Snaw'Naw'As First Nations reserve near Lantzville.

Some neighbours speculated that, as power was out in the area, candles might be to blame.

Once the cause has been established, the fire will be reviewed by the coroner's office and compared to the New Year's Day fire on Cowichan Tribes land that took the life of 19-year-old Joanne Crystal Joe and to a fire in a trailer on the Tsartlip First Nation reserve Dec. 29, which killed 44-year-old Wilfred Joseph Henry Jr.

In another, non-fatal incident shortly before Christmas, 28-year-old Arnold George was seriously injured after being thrown from a trailer after an explosion on the Songhees First Nation reserve.

"We have three homes and four deaths on reserves on Vancouver Island, so we want to find out the underlying factors here," Brown said.

Between Jan. 25, 2010, and this week, 11 people on Vancouver Island have died in fires in homes, camper vans or trailers where they were living. Most were not on reserves.

In 2010, a man in his 30s died in a Campbell River bungalow fire and a 61-year-old man died on Gabriola Island when his camper van caught fire.

In 2011, a man died in Nanaimo during a fire in a bedroom attached to a workshop; another death was the result of an apartment fire in Comox; a man died in a house fire in Port Alberni; a woman was killed in a mobile home fire in Port Hardy, and a trailer fire in Campbell River claimed a life.

The worst fire on a Vancouver Island reserve in recent years was in January 2009, when five people died after fire ravaged a home on the Stz'uminus [Chemainus] First Nation.

Four women and a seven-year old girl — three generations of one family — were trapped in a house that burst into flames.

The coroner's report into the deaths found that flammable liquid from a gas lantern left on a wood stove heated to the point that it produced enough vapour to create an explosive atmosphere in the basement.

"Flammable liquids stored around and near the wood stove provided additional fuel to allow the fire to progress rapidly through the house," said the report by then regional coroner Rose Stanton.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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