'We were 90 seconds away from dying:' Families on Sicamous houseboat fire question safety standards - InfoNews

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'We were 90 seconds away from dying:' Families on Sicamous houseboat fire question safety standards

The remains of the houseboat.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED:Jon Witt
August 14, 2020 - 7:00 AM

Jon Witt was still awake and reading when at around 1:30 a.m. he heard the generator on the houseboat he'd just rented start spluttering. Then everything went dark.

"I looked and could see a glow at the back of the boat," Witt told iNFOnews.ca. "I could see little flames on the back deck."

Witt, an emergency room physician, grabbed a nearby fire extinguisher, walked to the back of the boat and opened the door a few inches. He was blasted by heat and a strong smell of melting plastic as smoke poured through the cracked door. He then yelled "fire, fire."

Without a fuss, all 21 people on board the Wade James houseboat, most of them children, managed to get off the houseboat and onto shore within a couple of minutes.

"If people had said 'what's going on?' we would have just been overcome by smoke," Witt said. "Within a minute or two of us recognizing the fire, there was already smoke filling the cabin... (then) there were flames in the main passenger cabin compartment."

"When I jumped off the boat, the flames were into the sleeping compartment about halfway up the boat," he said.

Minutes later the entire 75-foot long, 2,400-square-foot houseboat was engulfed in flames.

A traumatic event for all involved, family members praised the kindness of strangers for endless amounts of help in the days following the fire. The families lost pretty much everything they brought onto the boat in the blaze. But as the families travelled back to their homes in Saskatoon, and let the events sink in, a realization set in. One aspect from the story was missing: The voice of any safety authority.

Chris Murphy was on the boat with his wife and four children. 

"We were 90 seconds away from dying so I would have thought someone would have phoned and said can we get your version of what happened on the boat?" Chris Murphy told iNFOnews.ca.

Forming their own "bubble," Witt and Murphy along with friends and family had rented the houseboat from Sicamous Houseboats for a summer vacation. They'd docked on a beach on Mara Lake hours before the fire started in the early hours of Aug. 4. Eight adults and 13 children had been on board the boat.

After jumping four feet from the boat to the beach during the blaze, the group, with the youngest being a one-year-old baby, headed far up the shore, concerned propane tanks on the boat may explode. Someone staying in a nearby cabin took them in and 911 was called.

"If Jon Witt hadn't gone to the back to that boat when he did... no one would have made it off that boat," Murphy said. "That's how close to dying we all were, that's what's really difficult to get beyond."

Some of the children suffered smoke inhalation an the odd cut or bruise but as an emergency room physician, Witt said there was no reason to take them to hospital. Since the fire, however, everyone involved has been left shaken and emotionally scarred. He says the smell of burnt toast now upsets his children.

While the close group of friends and family came to terms with what happened, almost one week later nobody from the group had been contacted regarding an investigation into the fire.

"We need to use this near tragedy and near-miss to prevent a future tragedy," Witt said. "We just want to make sure nothing happens again."

In a hospital setting, Witt said a critical incident review process would take place. But with the fire, is if there was some sort of investigation, he hasn't been told.

Finding the lack of communication concerning, Witt started reaching out himself. Waterways fall under federal jurisdiction so he requested an investigation from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

However, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada told iNFOnews.ca while the report had been received, they would not be conducting an investigation into the fire because the boat was classified as a "pleasure craft" and did not fall within their mandate.

According to Transport Canada, if a boat is rented without a captain or crew, the vessel is considered a pleasure craft. Hire a captain and crew and the boat becomes a non-pleasure vessel and is deemed commercial and has to follow a far stricter set of regulations. Even the construction standards for pleasure craft are different and have far fewer safety regulations concerning fire.

Witt takes issue with this, pointing out that almost all houseboats are manufactured for commercial use.

"It's essentially an unregulated industry that falls between... the gap," he said.

While the boat had fire extinguishers on board, no smoke alarms went off.

Sicamous Houseboats co-owner Barb Scott told iNFOnews.ca the boat was fitted with a carbon dioxide and fire detectors, as well as fire extinguishers, and that captains get training videos, a quiz, and a two-hour orientation.

"No smoke alarms went off... even after the smoke was starting to pour in and get thick there was still no smoke alarms," Witt said.

He believes the fire probably destroyed the battery the alarms were wired into, something that couldn't happen if the boats had to follow more strict commercial regulations. His daughter later told him she found a disconnected smoke detector in a drawer on the boat.

Chris Murphy and three of his children two days before the fire.
Chris Murphy and three of his children two days before the fire.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED:Chris Murphy

Why no alarms sounded is currently unclear, but Sicamous Fire Chief Brett Ogino said the houseboat companies were going above and beyond what is required from Transport Canada by having smoke detectors and fire extinguishers on board.

Because boats and water are federally regulated, Ogino has no involvement with the boats. He and his crew inspect the buildings and offices of the houseboat companies for fire safety but they don't step foot on the boats themselves to conduct any safety checks. The houseboat fire also took place outside the Sicamous Fire Department's coverage area, meaning a call to the mayor had to be made to get authorization before the firefighters could act.

"We're not looking to point blame," Witt said. "(But) who is regulating and monitoring the houseboat industry to ensure these boats are manufactured in a safe manner?"

Which poses additional questions about the materials used to build the boat and why the fire took off so quickly.

"Fiberglass burns very aggressively," Ogino said. "They're basically like an RV on pontoons... they go up fast."

After a few days of silence since the fire, and concerned no-one was investigating, Witt took it upon himself to find out what was going on. He contacted Shuswap Liberal MLA Greg Kyllo, the Office of the B.C. Fire Commissioner, and the Minister for Public Safety.

On Aug. 11, one week after the fire, Kyllo called Witt.

"He wanted to clarify they didn't build the boat," Witt said.

For more than 20 years before being elected to office, Kyllo ran Twin Anchors Marine, a company renting and manufacturing houseboats.

Moments after Kyllo hung-up, a call from the Office of the B.C. Fire Commissioner came through and Witt made an official statement. He's glad to hear an investigation is taking place, but not glad to hear the report will be kept between the owner of the houseboat company and the insurance company. He also questions why it took one week for them to call him.

"We've pushed harder than the average person (otherwise) I don't know if we would have been contacted," Witt said.

Emergency Management B.C. confirmed an ongoing investigation into the houseboat fire was taking place but was not in a position to comment further while it was ongoing.

The burning houseboat.
The burning houseboat.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED: Jon Witt

And according to fire experts, with so little remaining of the boat, the investigation may be a moot point.

"There's not a lot left," Ogino said. "It makes for a difficult investigation. Any marine fire is difficult because they tend to burn down to the waterline."

The entire experience leaves Witt and Murphy with a multitude of questions about the houseboat industry and the blasé manner in which they feel the fire has been dealt with.

"If someone had died, this would have been a coroner's inquest, so what happens when there's a near miss? Do we just say it was a good day and everybody move on?"

Sicamous is the self-proclaimed "Houseboating capital of Canada," where the decades old industry is worth millions to the local economy. Both Murphy and Witt believe this may be part of the problem.

"The whole area is tied up in this and I know that none of them want anything bad to happen but... what are they doing to ensure the houseboats are safe? What are they doing in regards to regulations?"

There have been fatalities over the years. Too much alcohol, partying, and the behaviour of some houseboaters have been well documented. And steps have been made. In an effort to prevent forest fires, the District of Sicamous banned fireworks last year, although admits it's a difficult bylaw to police when people set them off from boats in the middle of the lake. One cabin owner described fireworks being set off "nightly" on the weekends, largely by people partying on rented houseboats. The B.C. Wildfire Service was called to a large forest fire at Marble Point Aug. 3. Eyewitness reports say fireworks were seen in the area shortly before the fire started.

While these issues have been well documented, when it comes to fires on the boats themselves, there's far less chatter.

"I've been in this community 30-plus years and there's only been one other houseboat fire out on the lake that I recall," the Sicamous fire chief said when asked if there should be more regulations for the houseboats.

But Witt says he's heard of two other smaller events which took place in the last few years. He doesn't believe either issue – a faulty CO2 detector and a small fire that was extinguished – were ever reported.

B.C. Liberal Public Safety critic Mike Morris said the houseboats had to be manufactured to Canadian Coast Guard standards.

"From my understanding, (houseboats) already are quite highly regulated, the boats have to be properly equipped, properly maintained, there are fire safety standards on board," Morris said. "It will be interesting to see whether this boat had all those requirements and the maintenance schedule had been maintained."

Morris said it was a very unfortunate situation and it was lucky nobody was injured or died as a result of the fire.

"We need to find out what caused it and that if there are deficiencies in the regulations those should be identified in the report that comes out of this," he said.

With little left of the boat, the investigation into the cause of the fire may not be known. However, there are other questions that need to be answered regardless of what is left of the Wade James.

"The smoke alarms didn't go off, there's no emergency lighting... this boat was a ball of flames in five minutes," Murphy said. "If there had been... young children sleeping below deck there is no way they would have got out."

Witt said his aim is not to harm the houseboating industry and stresses it would be more harmful if nothing is done and there was a tragic accident.

"We're not trying to rock the boat and make life difficult for people, we're just wanting to make sure some reasonable safety standards are put in place," he said.

"You shouldn't need 21 dead bodies and the body of a dead baby to figure out what's going on," Murphy added.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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