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Are condo fires on the rise? How you can prevent them

Condo living is on the rise—and so is the potential for condo fires. From cooking mishaps to smouldering cigarette butts on balconies, there are plenty of ways for accidents to happen.

Some of these fires are beyond residents’ control, such as those caused by a building electrical failure, but many are preventable. Here’s what you need to know to prevent fires in your condo and stay safe.


The high rise of condo dwellers

Between 2016 and 2021, more than half of the homes built in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal were condos, according to Statistics Canada. Their relative affordability, attractive building amenities and close proximity to services and shopping have drawn in millions. In fact, in 2021, 4.3 million Canadians were living in condos—with millennials and baby boomers accounting for more than half of all condo dwellers.

If you fall into this camp, it also means you’re living in close proximity to other people—possibly hundreds of other people—so it increases the likelihood that accidents are going to happen. While condo dwellers are susceptible to fires in their own units, they could also be affected by fires in neighbouring units, balconies or common areas.

Condo safety

The good news is that condos typically have smoke detectors, fire alarms and sprinkler systems maintained by building management. They’re also subject to stringent regulation and inspection.

Ontario’s Fire Protection and Prevention Act, for example, requires the use of concrete and fire-retardant building materials to help contain fires (and outlines conditions for retrofitting older properties). And newer condos are typically built with multiple sprinklers in each unit.

But fires still happen. In Toronto, high-rise buildings represented 43.1% of all residential fires in 2020—and more than half of the city’s fire fatalities. Even if no lives are lost, a fire can displace residents for weeks or months. It can also damage or destroy your personal belongings—some of them irreplaceable. Plus, there’s the potential for condo fees to increase due to the cost and displacement of residents.

So what are some of the common causes of condo fires and how can you take steps to prevent them?

Condo fire cause 1: Cooking-related fires

The majority of fires in condos are caused by cooking mishaps. If a frying pan overheats during cooking, it could cause a grease fire—but if you panic and throw water on it, the fire will spread. Or, if a kitchen appliance falls into the sink and comes into contact with water, it could start an electrical fire.

Another issue is outdoor cooking. Most condos (and fire departments) don’t allow BBQs or open-flame grills on condo balconies. In fact, it’s typically illegal, especially if there’s a unit above and/or below you. It’s important to follow the rules and report any illegal BBQs you spot from the vantage point of your balcony to building management.

Condo fire cause 2: Smoking-related fires

Smoking-related fires are a major issue in shared residential buildings. While some condos include a ‘no-smoking’ policy in their rules (which is legal), it’s hard to enforce.

Smokers will typically step out to the balcony to have a cigarette. This is why condo balconies are a common source of high-rise fires, often caused by smouldering cigarette butts that weren’t properly extinguished. Even if the resident is a non-smoker, they may have guests over who smoke. In this case, there may not be ashtrays on hand, and the guests may not dispose of their butts safely.

Some smokers use a flower pot or planter on the balcony as a makeshift ashtray—but potting soil and peat moss are flammable when dry. Others assume they can flick their cigarette butt off the balcony and it will land on the street below. But the wind can blow it onto another balcony, and if it lands on a cushioned patio chair or in a planter, it could ignite a spark.

Further, patio furniture is often made with petroleum foams, which makes them much more combustible than natural materials. If you’re living on a lower floor, this also puts your balcony at risk from unsafe smokers above.

Condo fire cause 3: Dryer-related fires

While this may be less common than cooking or smoking-related fires, it’s one that condo owners and tenants should be aware of. Even if you regularly clean the lint trap inside your dryer, condos usually have a second lint trap located in the ceiling of the laundry room/closet.

If you didn’t know about this second lint trip, it’s definitely time to clean it! Look for a square panel that can be gently pulled open to clean. Removing all this lint will not only decrease your chances of a dryer-related fire, but should also improve your dryer performance.

Note that you also need to clean the ventilation or exhaust system that draws the air out of your suite. If lint collects in the vent, it could cause the dryer to overheat and start a fire.

Check the rules and regulations of your condo association to find out who is responsible for the maintenance of dryer vents (either the owner or the association). If you’re responsible, it’s recommended to have a professional clean your dryer vents once a year.

Tips for avoiding condo fires

  • Just as you shouldn’t drive while distracted, you shouldn’t cook while distracted either. Set a timer if you’re multi-tasking.
  • Learn what to do for different types of kitchen fires: a “regular” cooking fire, a grease fire and an electrical fire. (Check out this Home Fire Prevention Booklet for helpful advice.)
  • Know how to access and use the fire extinguisher (likely located in the external hallway of your condo building).
  • Never flick cigarette butts over your balcony and never butt out in a flower pot or planter.
  • If you don’t smoke, have ashtrays on hand on your balcony for guests who do.
  • Whether or not you’re a smoker, don’t keep combustibles on your balcony and make sure your plants are well-watered.
  • Find out who’s responsible for cleaning the dryer vents in your condo building. If that’s your responsibility, arrange for a professional to clean your vents on an annual basis.
  • All electrical work should be done by a qualified electrician (your building will likely require a contractor’s license to be submitted beforehand).
  • Building management should regularly communicate fire safety policies with residents and raise awareness of the consequences.

As a fire-safe condo dweller, you’ll protect yourself, your guests and your neighbours. And when it comes to your insurance policy, speak with your insurance broker to review the details and discuss whether you need to add protection for your property and belongings.


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