EDMONTON - Firefighters and homebuilders stood side by side Friday to get a dramatic first-hand look at how changes to Alberta's building code can slow burning times and save lives.
A demonstration fire gave a searing example of how using gypsum board instead of strandboard under vinyl siding can slow the spread of flames, giving firefighters more time to snuff the fire.
Changes to Alberta's building code, spurred by a massive housing development fire in south Edmonton last year, will now require fire-resistant gypsum wallboard to be used under vinyl siding when homes are within 1.2 metres of the property line.
But senior firefighters who attended the demonstration say they want even tougher standards that would require this change for all homes within 1.5 metres of the property line.
"Personally, I don't feel it goes far enough quite yet," says Russ Bilton, assistant deputy chief of operations for the Calgary Fire Department.
But a spokesman for Alberta's homebuilders says using gypsum board is more expensive and, along with other changes, could adds thousands of dollars to the cost of a home.
"Ultimately it's the homebuyers that feel the effect of any government change," says Vince Laberge, president of the Alberta division of the Canadian Homebuilders Association.
"We are always concerned about housing affordability and some of these changes will have an effect on that. The devil's in the details."
But Brian McEvoy, president of the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association, says adding a couple of thousand dollars to the price of a home seems fairly insignificant when you consider what's at stake.
"If we go back to 1977 when smoke alarms became mandatory, the same arguments were used that it would make the price of homes too expensive."
John Hillary, executive-director of the Alberta Safety Codes Council, says he thinks the public can be sold on the idea of paying a little more for homes built with improved fire safety.
"Once you move the bar up a little bit it just becomes part of the cost of buying a house," said Hillary. "Rather than spending $10,000 on the granite countertops, maybe you'll spend $5,000 to improve the safety of your house."
Municipal Affairs Minister Ray Danyluk has accepted 18 of 22 recommendations from a study group that included emergency workers, fire departments and members of the Safety Codes Council.
The minister began asking pointed questions last summer after a wind-whipped fire at the MacEwan Green development in south Edmonton levelled 18 duplexes and damaged 70 other homes in just two hours.
The changes Danyluk announced also include having new multi-family buildings put additional sprinklers in balconies, attics and crawl spaces; and requiring fire detectors and gypsum wallboard in the attached garages of new homes.
But the minister rejected a recommendation to ensure that developers and municipal planners consult fire officials before building new subdivisions. He says this change will happen over time under Alberta's new land use regulations.
Danyluk has some personal insight into the rapid spread of fire. The minister's condominium was gutted by flames a couple of years ago. The fire raced from one end of the building to the other, leaving him questioning how it could spread so fast.
But after hearing from all sides on fire safety issues, the minister says there's a need to balance safety and affordability.
"We could all build houses out of stone that would be a lot safer, but they would not be affordable."