Saturday, September 20, 2014
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Lack of firefighters, equipment on First Nations

By Betty Ann Adam, The StarPhoenix

As people in the small community of Pelican Narrows grieve the deaths of two young boys in a house fire Saturday, a fire official considered the factors that clustered to cause the tragedy.

There weren’t enough volunteer firefighters available to help and the fire truck was broken down.

On top of that, if the house was on the First Nation it was probably never inspected for fire hazards or fire code compliance.

Two boys, ages nine and 10, died, and a 10-year-old girl is in hospital in Winnipeg with burns after what RCMP believe was an accidental fire in the northeastern Saskatchewan community.

The RCMP have said the female home owner and three youngster escaped the blaze but two boys were unaccounted for. Their bodies were later found in the charred remains of the house.

“This is a tragic event and our thoughts are with the families and the members of the community during this difficult time,” stated a message from the office of Bernard Valcourt, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.

Richard Kent, Commissioner of Emergency and Protective Services for the Prince Albert Grand Council, said there weren’t enough volunteers available to help.

“You can’t fight a fire with just a couple people. It’s too dangerous,” Kend said Tuesday.

The community’s fire truck never got to the fire either, Kent said.

“They’re not driving the trucks every day and vehicles break down. A pumper has a lot of special equipment on it and a lot of times you can’t get them to run properly,” he said.

“These fires burn so hot and so fast that if you’re not there within five minutes, it’s too late,” he said.

Adding to those problems is one unique to First Nations: national building codes and national fire codes do not apply on reserves.

It is not known whether the fatal house fire that occurred January 18 in Pelican Narrows was on land belonging to the Northern Village or the adjacent and connected Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation.

The community’s fire chief had already been working to expand the volunteer crew since October, when a house fire killed a 10-year-old girl there, Kent said.

The community has plenty of trained volunteers but many of them work at distant mines and are not always available to respond.

“That’s what we struggle with. The volunteers are true volunteers. They’ve got lives to live as well. It’s just something that happens in First Nations communities,” Kent said.

Kent is keen to recruit band staff working in maintenance, housing and water supply because they know the community best and their chief and council won’t dock their pay if they have to leave the job to fight a fire.

Kent wants a greater emphasis on public awareness of fire prevention, especially in the absence of national building codes and fire codes on First Nations.

Reserve buildings and houses are not subject to mandatory fire inspections and permits are not required for new buildings or renovations. Anything goes in terms of materials and design, Kent said.

The Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs have been lobbying the federal government for about eight years to introduce legislation to apply federal or provincial building codes and fire codes on First Nations communities, said president Steven Gamble.

“It’s a solution they should be looking into,” Gamble said.

The topic remains high on the association’s agenda for an upcoming trip to meet with federal government ministers, opposition critics and members of the Senate, Gamble said.

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