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An early morning fire forces the evacuation of residents of the Muskoka Heights Retirement Residence in Orillia, Ont., on Jan. 19, 2009.STEPHEN SCHATTIN/The Canadian Press

The fire at Muskoka Heights Retirement Residence broke out shortly after 6 a.m. The lone worker on duty rushed into the snowy darkness, frantically pounding on neighbouring doors for help.

Four seniors perished in the January, 2009, blaze in Orillia, Ont., and several others were injured. The deadly event triggered a coroner's inquest – the fourth to examine nursing home fires in Ontario.

This time, the provincial government acted on the jury's call to make automatic sprinklers mandatory in retirement residences and assisted-living centres. Ontario is the first province to regulate the retrofitting of sprinklers in care homes for seniors and individuals with disabilities – people who have difficulty moving quickly.

The fatal fire that destroyed a seniors' home in rural L'Isle-Verte, Que., on Thursday has reopened the debate about whether automated sprinkler systems should be required in all parts of seniors' homes.

Changes to the fire and building codes in Ontario took effect this year, but the government gave retirement homes time to comply. Licensed retirement homes and private care facilities have up to five years to install sprinklers, while publicly owned nursing residences have until 2025.

The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs lauded the government's move when it was announced last May, saying it was the most important fire-safety improvement since smoke alarms became mandatory. Most nursing homes built since 1998 were required to install sprinklers, but many older facilities don't have them.

Ontario has witnessed several horrific nursing home fires. Over the past three decades, nearly 50 seniors have died in blazes in retirement residences without sprinklers, including 25 in Mississauga in 1980.

Susan Eng, vice-president of the seniors advocacy group CARP, wants other provinces to require operators of seniors homes to retrofit their facilities with sprinklers. But she also contends the Ontario government should move much more quickly than its current timeline. Cost, she said, should not take precedence over protecting lives.

"It's a money issue. That's why it stalled out since 1980," Ms. Eng said.