(Adds debate on sprinklers)
By Randall Palmer
OTTAWA, Jan 24 (Reuters) - Canadian police and firefighters used steam machines on Friday to melt thick ice encasing the corpses of elderly people who died in a massive blaze that destroyed a wooden retirement residence in rural Quebec the day before.
Police said that five people died and about 30 were unaccounted for after the early morning blaze ripped through the Residence du Havre in the small community of L'Isle-Verte, about 230 km (140 miles) northeast of Quebec City.
Police said the missing might not all be dead since 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 part of the 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.
The ice formed as firefighters, working in temperatures that dropped as low as minus 22 Celsius (minus 8 Fahrenheit), doused the building with water for hours. In some cases the resulting ice is one or two feet (30 to 60 cm) thick.
"So many things could happen that we can't plan on - the cold is extreme, the equipment could freeze, we could run into other issues," said Guy Lapointe, spokesman for the Quebec provincial police force.
"The steam is being used for us to be able to advance at the scene, being able to preserve the integrity of potential victims."
The cold was so intense on Friday that teams of police, firefighters and coroner's office officials could only work in 45-minute shifts.
Police have not managed to track down all the residents who might have been in the building at the time of the fire, and Lapointe said it is possible that nonresidents had been in the building.
Officials said they do not know what caused the fire and Lapointe appealed to local residents to provide any videos or pictures they may have taken after the fire started shortly after Wednesday midnight.
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.
The United States now requires all long-term care facilities to have sprinkler systems if they serve Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. (Additional reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Frank McGurty, Jeffrey Hodgson; and Peter Galloway)
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