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Toronto fire chief reflects on busy 2019, high-profile investigations

Toronto’s fire chief reflects on year of challenges and road ahead
WATCH ABOVE: Chief Matthew Pegg sat down with Shallima Maharaj to reflect on the year that was, and the challenges that faced the department.

When Matthew Pegg began his firefighting career 27 years ago, it was on a voluntary basis in Keswick, in the town of Georgina, Ont.

Growing up on a farm, Pegg told Global News his initial desire was to continue on the family tradition. He never imagined he would become chief of the fifth largest fire service in North America.

“I speak to recruits every time we hire,” he said. “I tell them, ‘This is a city that truly never sleeps.’ And that was evident in 2019, for sure.”

READ MORE: York Memorial C.I. roof collapses as crews battle 6-alarm fire

Pegg said that over the course of the year, Toronto Fire Services responded more than 300,000 times to approximately 132,000 incidents.

One of those calls was a six-alarm fire that tore through a historic west Toronto high school.

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“I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a more daunting smoke plume,” he recalled of the blaze at York Memorial Collegiate Institute in early May.

“Trying to manage that smoke and manage the impacts of that was incredible. Our incident commanders and all of the firefighters and officers and the paramedics and police officers working with us, we were continually having to move evacuation perimeters and evacuation zones.”

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Toronto fire chief reflects on busy 2019
Toronto fire chief reflects on busy 2019

In August, the Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM) completed its report into the fire, deeming it accidental.

Global News obtained a copy through a Freedom of Information request.

READ MORE: York Memorial C.I. blaze deemed accidental by officials, cause of fire unknown

According to the report, the total loss as a result of the destruction was $90 million. The conclusion of the OFM investigator read in part “…the cause of the fire was the ignition of combustibles from a probable failure of an electrical or mechanical system located within the walls/floor cavity of the second floor to the auditorium.”

Toronto Fire crews were initially dispatched on May 6 at 2:13 pm. Callers reported seeing heavy smoke emanating from the auditorium.

A fire that was located behind the main stage area was extinguished. A fire watch was put into place by Toronto District School Board (TDSB) security at 9:30 pm.

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Toronto fire chief provides update on injured firefighters
Toronto fire chief provides update on injured firefighters

The watch was supposed to last until the following morning, at which point the auditorium would be inspected and an investigation into a cause and origin would be launched.

However, at 1:30 am, the security officer on site entered the school and found smoke within the main floor hallway. Nearly two hours later, they noticed both smoke and flames emerging from the location, and firefighters were called back to the scene.

READ MORE: ‘It was like a towering inferno’: Resident recalls 5-alarm Toronto apartment blaze

“At the point where we receive confirmation and we become aware of the fact that there may, in fact, be legal action initiated, it pretty much shuts down my ability to have technical conversations,” Pegg explained when pressed about the fire.

“Unfortunately, that’s the case. We’ve been put on notice that there are some groups considering launching legal action and unfortunately, it’s not a conversation I can have at this point.”

The fire displaced nearly 900 students and caused significant damage to the structure, which was built in 1929 as a monument to local youth who fought in the First World War.

Six months after that fire on Nov. 15, crews were called to 235 Gosford Boulevard, a 15-storey apartment building in North York that was being ravaged by a five-alarm fire.

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Hundreds were forced from their homes and a man died as a result of smoke inhalation.

READ MORE: Person found dead after 5-alarm fire at Toronto apartment building, hundreds displaced

While the OFM continues to investigate the cause, they determined it started in the bedroom of an eighth-floor unit.

“We literally had crews on every floor in that building going door-to-door, making sure everyone is safe and accounted for,” said Pegg.

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“The conditions that they were presented with, it was just impossible to get inside,” he added when asked about why crews were unable to reach the individual.

“Our crews literally had to fight fire to even make access into the suite. They were there quickly,” Pegg explained. “Our top priority, every time we turn a wheel, our first priority is rescue and preservation of human life … but unfortunately there are times where the circumstances, even with all of the protective equipment we have, that prevent us from getting inside.”

The year also saw Toronto Fire nab a win on the international stage.

They earned accredited agency status from the Commission on Fire Accreditation International (CFAI), which Pegg explained is essentially an independent peer-based review of their practices.

Pegg said there is much to look forward to in the future. An operations deployment review has already begun, and there is also the matter of increasing construction.

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“Our city is going to get increasingly vertical, increasingly dense and increasingly complex. So we are preparing for the continuation of the upward trend. We expect to be busier in 2020 than we were in 2019, and our goal is to do our very best to be prepared for that.”