HALIFAX — The Nova Scotia government is refusing to release the findings of the fire marshal’s investigation into a blaze last month that claimed the lives of four children.
Municipal Affairs spokeswoman Krista Higdon confirmed in an email that the investigation into the Jan. 7 fire in Pubnico Head has been completed, but she said the cause of the fire would not be released “due to privacy laws.” She would not elaborate.
In the past, the province’s Office of the Fire Marshal has released the basic findings of investigations, which exclude personal information.
Emma Kennedy and her common-law partner Phil Prouty escaped the blaze, but the fast-moving fire killed four-month-old Winston Prouty, four-year-old Jayla Kennedy, seven-year-old Mya Prouty and seven-year-old Mason Grant, a cousin who was visiting for a sleepover.
The Nova Scotia Medical Examiner Service has completed autopsies but a spokesperson said it won’t be releasing the findings.
Like the fire marshal’s reports, these documents are typically withheld from the public because they contain personal information. But basic information, such as cause of death, is often released.
David Fraser, a leading technology and privacy lawyer in Halifax, said the province’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act grants most public bodies broad discretion when it comes to disclosing information considered in the public interest.
Police, for example, often release the cause of death and victims’ names in murder cases.
“That doesn’t get into all of the details that would be included in an autopsy, but it provides information that is important (for the public),” he said. “In a fire that has caused multiple deaths, I think there’s a public interest in knowing what the cause of the fire was.”
Fred Vallance-Jones, who teaches at the journalism school at University of King’s College in Halifax, said revealing the cause of the fire could be key to preventing a similar tragedy.
“If you’ve had four children die in a fire — which has received incredible public exposure — all Nova Scotians have an interest in ensuring this doesn’t happen again. There is a public interest in knowing what caused it,” he said.
“That hardly violates anyone’s privacy because it’s a very public event.”
Fraser also said concern for public safety should prompt a more open response.
“Whenever you hear about a fire that has been caused by an appliance … that prompts people to do maintenance, which could save lives.”
West Pubnico Fire Chief Gordon Amiro, whose firefighters were among the first at the scene, said he hasn’t been told what the fire marshal found.
“Whether they have a cause or they don’t, or they’re not saying, I don’t know … Usually, they let us know,” Amiro said in an interview Friday.
Shortly after the fire, Amiro speculated a faulty wood stove could have been to blame.
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press