By Randall Palmer and David Ljunggren
OTTAWA (Reuters) - Exhausted Canadian police and firefighters prepared to break off work for the night on Friday after using steam machines to melt thick ice encasing the bodies of elderly people who died in a retirement residence fire.
Police said eight people died and about 30 were unaccounted for after the blaze ripped through the Residence du Havre in the small community of L'Isle-Verte, about 230 km (140 miles) northeast of Quebec City, early on Thursday morning.
Teams of police, firefighters and coroner's office officials - dealing with conditions so cold they could only work 45-minute shifts - used steam machines to melt thick ice that had formed after the blaze was doused.
Police spokesman Guy Lapointe said the teams planned to take a break at 7 p.m. eastern and would resume early on Saturday morning.
"Our people are exhausted ... the conditions are very, very difficult," he told a televised briefing, saying police might bring in more equipment. Temperatures in the area hovered around minus 20 C (minus 4 Fahrenheit).
Police said the number thought to be missing might not all be casualties, as it was still unclear how many of the home's residents were in the building when the fire started.
The disaster has already raised demands that the Quebec government require homes for the elderly to be equipped with sprinkler systems, following the lead of neighboring Ontario. Only a part of the L'Isle-Verte residence had sprinklers.
"If the investigation shows that we need sprinklers or new rules, the government will act and bring in the changes for sure," said Jean-Thomas Grantham, spokesman for Quebec Labor and Social Solidarity Minister Agnes Maltais.
Lapointe said the teams were using steam to help ensure that the remains of victims remained intact. In some cases the resulting ice is one or two feet thick.
Police have not managed to locate all the residents who may have been in the building at the time of the fire, and Lapointe said it is possible that nonresidents were there as well.
Officials said they do not know what caused the fire and Lapointe appealed to local residents to provide any videos or photos they may have taken after the fire broke out shortly after Wednesday midnight.
The co-owners of the residence, in a statement, offered their deepest sympathy to the victims and said they would cooperate fully with authorities.
CARP, an association representing the elderly in Canada, has long demanded that all such facilities install sprinklers, but said cost concerns have overridden safety needs.
"We've had these kinds of fires over the last three decades, inquest after inquest making these recommendations. Here we are today and we still don't have ... a national standard that's enforced and fully funded," said CARP spokeswoman Susan Eng.
An investigation by La Presse newspaper published on Friday found that 1,052 of 1,953 private seniors' residences in Quebec have no sprinklers at all, and 204 of them, including the L'Isle-Verte home, had only partial sprinkler systems.
"It's clear that the best way to protect our seniors in these residences is to have sprinklers," said Andre St-Hilaire of the Quebec Association of Fire Chiefs.
Canada has a patchwork of regulations for homes for the elderly that can vary from province to province. Ontario, Canada's most populous province, made sprinklers mandatory at the beginning of the year in all homes for seniors, allowing a phase-in period for existing homes.
Ontario acted after four people died in 2009 fire at a seniors' home in the town of Orillia. A coroner's inquest urged the provincial government to require such residences to install sprinklers.
The United States now requires all long-term care facilities to have sprinkler systems if they serve Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.
(With additional reporting by Louise Egan in Ottawa; Editing by Frank McGurty, Jeffrey Hodgson, Peter Galloway and Gunna Dickson)