Firefighting Ability Of Manitoba First Nations Under Scrutiny

By Lloyd Dolha

Manitoba’s Office of the Fire Commissioner and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) will work together to combat what AMC Grand Chief Ron Evans has described as “an epidemic” of fire-related deaths and injuries in the province’s Aboriginal communities. On June 29, 2011, the province of Manitoba and the AMC signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for a joint fire protection program that will increase fire protection and prevention capacity for all 63 First Nations in the province. “Through the assistance of the Office of the Fire Commissioner, we are pleased to make fire prevention planning available to all Manitobans, regardless of where they live,” said Labour and Immigration Minister Jennifer Howard. “This partnership with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is an important step that we think will save lives.”

Howard believes successful implementation of the fire-protection plans depends on strong participation from the federal government. Working together, Manitoba and the AMC will hire a fire-protection officer who will conduct a risk analysis and hazard assessment program for every First Nations community in the province. The program is aimed at creating community-based protection plans aimed at preventing fatalities and loss of property due to fire.

Fires have been a growing concern for First Nations communities for a number of years. “Deadly fires have become an epidemic on Manitoba First Nations,” said AMC Grand Chief Evans. “In the last five years, 20 adults and 12 children have died in house fires. We need the process being established to collect accurate information so we can put effective plans in place for First Nation communities to address this critical issue.” The program will also review current operations budgets and help determine available personnel to manage and administer the plan in each community. Every community will evaluate current firefighting and fire protection equipment, ensure ongoing maintenance, and develop strategic partnerships to prevent greater loss of life and property.

Manitoba First Nations have higher fatality rates and loss of property due to fire compared to other communities in Canada. From 2005 to 2010, 28% of Manitoba’s fire-related fatalities occurred on First Nations communities. Preliminary statistics indicate an increase to a staggering 67% for 2011. “The statistics tell us that it’s time to take action, and we are pleased to partner with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs,” said Fire Commissioner Chris Jones. “This program will provide us with an opportunity to reduce the risk of fire incidents on First Nations communities.”

A recent report obtained by the Winnipeg Free Press says the federal government spent nearly $11.8 million for fire protection in Manitoba First Nations in the last five years, but no one knows how much money actually went towards that purpose. Although Ottawa provides funds for fire services, band councils can spend the money on whatever they want, and there are no records showing how and where the money was spent. The review, conducted jointly by the AMC and the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, was prompted by two fatal fires in a single weekend in May 2010.

The federal government wants proof of where the money is going before it can assess whether more is needed. The report recommends requiring that fire protection funds be used only for fire services. Evans said the review would simply show how underfunded fire services for First Nations really are. In most cases, fire fighting capabilities were hampered by things like frozen fire hydrants, missing fire hoses, or broken down fire trucks.

The province’s chief medical examiner has ordered an inquest to evaluate the effectiveness of Manitoba First Nations firefighting equipment and personnel after the deaths of four people in house fires at two northern reserves earlier this year. Dr. Thambirajah Balachandra announced the inquest after the death of two-and-a-half-month-old Errabella Harper at the St. Theresa Point First Nation on January 16th, and the subsequent deaths of 73-year-old Demus James, 2-year-old Throne Kirkness, and 3-year-old Kayleigh Okemow at God’s Lake Narrows First Nation on March 14th.

Errabella Harper was one of six children asleep at home at noon when the house suddenly became engulfed in flames. Four of the children escaped and a local band constable was able to get inside and get another child out. Rescuers cut a hole through an exterior wall in an attempt to pull out the mattress baby Errabella was on, but she died from smoke inhalation. The Office of the Fire commissioner later ruled the fire was caused by a malfunction in the wood heating system in the home.

The fire at God’s Lake was spotted by community members, and since no fire truck was available, a local water truck was used in an attempt to put out the blaze. Three people were later found dead from smoke inhalation. The Office of the Fire Commissioner said a poorly maintained baseboard heater caused that fire. The inquest will look into the installation of fire, smoke, and carbon monoxide detectors in buildings on First Nations reserves and determine how often residences are inspected for fire hazards.