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Probe concludes trailer where Nova Scotia family of six died lacked smoke detector

HALIFAX — A probe by Nova Scotia's fire marshal's office has found that the travel trailer where a family of six died amid toxic smoke last month no longer had smoke detection devices.

HALIFAX — A probe by Nova Scotia's fire marshal's office has found that the travel trailer where a family of six died amid toxic smoke last month no longer had smoke detection devices.

Doug MacKenzie, the acting chief fire marshal, said in an interview Thursday "there were no smoke alarms discovered" in the camper during the investigation, despite federal records indicating they were present when the Keystone Passport ultra-light trailer was manufactured.

The fire safety expert says a properly mounted device with a charged battery would have been capable of alerting people within seconds of the fire.

MacKenzie emphasized that time is crucial in situations where windows are closed and a trailer is tightly sealed up. "I can tell you from my experience ... that people can become overcome within minutes from smouldering fire," he said.

"Smoke detection is the earliest front-line defence you can have for securing the safety of your family. And every sleeping area should have an operational smoke detector present."

Thirty-year-old Robert Jorge (R.J.) Sears, 28-year-old Michelle Elaine Robertson, and their children — 11-year-old Madison Anne-Marie Sears, eight-year-old Robert (Ryder) Sears, four-year-old Jaxson Robertson and three-year-old Collin Justin (C.J.) Sears — died in the fire.

MacKenzie also said the overnight fire discovered Sept. 12 in remote Millvale, N.S., was accidental and started due to "misuse of smoking material" found in the kitchen area of the trailer. He said he couldn't provide the precise description of whether the "smoking material" was from a pipe or a cigarette, but clarified it wasn't a vaping device.

He said his team's Oct. 13 report into the cause found that toxins emitted during the smouldering fire included carbon monoxide and gases from burning polyurethane foam in the trailer.

The chief medical examiner has declined to provide the cause of the deaths, but MacKenzie said signs point toward smoke inhalation.

MacKenzie said the national fire code requires that smoke detectors be installed, and when his team checked with Transport Canada it was determined that the travel trailer had smoke and carbon monoxide detectors when it left the factory in 2007. In a followup email, he confirmed the trailer was purchased second-hand a few years ago, though the precise date was unavailable.

He said the probe did not determine precisely when or why the smoke detectors were removed, and he did not inquire with the registry of motor vehicles whether an inspection record was available for the vehicle.

Kim Masland, the minister of public works, said in an interview Thursday the registry of motor vehicles — which her department oversees — requires a safety check be done when a travel trailer is sold second-hand, but the check focuses on mechanical and lighting issues. 

"Our responsibility is to make sure an RV or trailer is safe for the road .... We would not be going in and inspecting sleeping quarters within an RV or a travel trailer. Our mandate is specifically making sure the mechanical part of that is safe," she said. 

Asked if the list of what would be checked during an inspection might expand in light of the tragedy, Masland said, "It's something we could look into."

She also said she had understood that some older recreational vehicles don't have smoke detectors in them, and she added that it's clearly up to owners to ensure the batteries in detectors are working.

A spokeswoman for the department said the registry of motor vehicles can't confirm if an inspection occurred when the Sears family took ownership, saying "this is confidential information."

MacKenzie noted the fire has been an event that has devastated the relatives of the Amherst family, and he hoped safety lessons learned might encourage citizens to keep their smoke detectors up-to-date both at home and in campers.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 28, 2021.

— With files from Keith Doucette.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press