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Firefighters and Sûreté du Québec officers fight the fire at a seniors home in L’Isle Verte, Quebec, on Jan. 24, 2014.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

The criminal investigation into the deadly fire that ripped through a Quebec seniors home and killed 32 residents is in the hands of prosecutors who must decide if criminal charges will be laid.

Nearly 10 months after the fire at Résidence du Havre in L'Isle-Verte in eastern Quebec, two separate inquiries are taking a step closer to airing what happened on the frigid January night to ignite the blaze and allow it to spin wildly out of control in a matter of minutes.

While Quebec prosecutors weigh criminal charges, a coroner's inquest will start next week to probe the cause of one of the deadliest fires in Canadian history. The coroner does not have a mandate to lay blame, but may shed light on the circumstances surrounding the ignition of the fire and emergency response to it. He may also suggest measures to prevent a similar disaster.

Theories for the cause of the fire have so far trickled out in leaks from official sources, lawsuits and people who were on the scene. Roch Bernier, co-owner of the 52-unit home, has said the Sûreté du Québec favours the theory that the fire started in the home's kitchen. Mr. Bernier and an employee of the home have said they believe the fire began in a room above the kitchen where a resident was smoking.

Eric Morin, the head of prosecutions for the region, said it will be some time before answers come from a criminal trial – if charges are laid.

"We have no idea about timeline, whether it will take weeks or months," Mr. Morin said in an interview. "The file is voluminous and complex, and prosecutors must evaluate the entire file, all the evidence along with the law, before the decision is made. We are in the very early stages."

The inquest may provide some answers more quickly, but fresh details emerged Thursday about firefighter response.

The first fire alarm rang to alert 911 operators at 12:22 a.m. and, according to documents obtained by Radio-Canada, about half of the community's part-time, paid fire brigade was called into action three minutes later. At 12:29 a.m., a general alarm was called, ringing all 15 firefighters at their homes through pagers.

The first fire truck arrived at 12:40 a.m. – nearly 18 minutes after the first fire alarm. The building was already consumed by smoke and fire. Backup from neighbouring small towns was called a minute later. The region's biggest, professional fire department 28 kilometres away in Rivière-du-Loup was never called.

In a statement obtained by the investigative program Enquête, Fire Chief Yvan Charron says he never received the first alert and went into the building instead of calling for backup when he did arrive on the scene.

Around the time of the disaster, Mr. Charron maintained he and his team did all they could, given how quickly the wooden structure – which was only half equipped with sprinklers – was consumed. The chief also said reinforcements would have arrived too late to save lives even if they'd been immediately called. He could not be reached Thursday.

Mario Michaud, a neighbour who made one of the first 911 calls, said the building was fully in flames by the time he placed the call.

Mr. Bernier and his business partner are suing the town of L'Isle-Verte and the fire department, saying its response lagged and it failed to respond to repeated requests to help draw up a co-ordinated evacuation plan.

The firefighters in the small town, who were traditionally considered volunteer but are now paid, are expected to follow specialized training. The report raised questions on how much training Mr. Charron and his team received.

These are questions the inquest may answer. One of Quebec's most experienced fire commissioners, Cyrille Delage, is leading the probe. Mr. Delage headed the 1969 inquiry into a fire at Le Repos du Vieillard, which killed at least 38 residents at a seniors home southeast of L'Isle-Verte.

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