Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fiddling while reserves burn

If only fires could be smothered with red tape

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OTTAWA -- It was far past bedtime on May 2, 2010 when two little children playing with a lighter set fire to their Long Plain First Nation home.

Their father, Frank Maytwayashing managed to get three-year-old Shaylene and five-year-old Frankie out of the house, suffering burns to more than a third of his body in the process.

FIRE FACTS

5.75 -- number of deaths per 100,000 people due to fires in First Nations communities in Canada, 2009

0.6 -- number of deaths per 100,000 people due to fires in Canada, 2009

1,472 -- number of fires on First Nations reported in 2008

1,252 -- number of fires on First Nations reported in 2009

85 -- number of people injured in fires on First Nations, 2008

57 -- number of people injured in fires on First Nations, 2009

26 -- number of people killed in fires on First Nations, 2008

26 -- number of people killed in fires on First Nations, 2009

$45.8 million -- damages caused by fires on reserves in Canada, 2009

$8.2 million -- damages caused by fires on reserves in Manitoba, 2009

 

-- Indian and Northern Affairs Canada Fire Loss Report 2009

But two-year-old Curtis Laporte was frightened by the flames and hid behind a sofa under his baby blanket.

By the time a firefighter finally got to him, the toddler was barely alive. He died in the ambulance from smoke inhalation on the way to the hospital.

A remote control had melted to his red sweatpants from the blaze. He was buried on what would have been his third birthday.

Documents obtained by the Free Press through the Access to Information Act show news of Curtis's death hit hard and travelled fast. Within 48 hours, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) and the regional office of what was then called Indian and Northern Affairs Canada had struck a Manitoba First Nations Fire Protection Working Group to look at the problem.

Why were so many First Nations homes going up in flames? Why were so many of the fires fatal? And who was to blame?

It was hoped the working group would complete its work in just a month.

Fifteen months later, a final report has yet to be written.

And yet the need for answers is critical.

In 2009, the most recent year for which a fire-loss report is available, there were 1,252 fires reported on First Nations in Canada, causing $45.8 million in damage. In Manitoba, there were 126 fires, destroying 90 buildings and causing $8.2 million in damage.

House destroyed by fire on Long Plains reserve.

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House destroyed by fire on Long Plains reserve. (BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES) Photo Store

In the last five years, 14 children and 20 adults have died in fires on reserves in Manitoba.

The Manitoba fire commissioner estimates about a quarter of all fatal fires in Manitoba occur on reserves. Nationally, the fire-fatality rate on reserves is 5.75 for every 100,000 people. That is nearly 10 times the rate of death for fires off reserve in Canada.

First Nations experience 2.4 times as many fires as the rest of Canada, and fires on First Nations cause more than twice as much damage.

Rampant social problems contribute to the risky behaviours that can cause fires. In at least two fatal fires in Manitoba in the last few years, the fire broke out in the kitchen during a party when most guests were intoxicated.

Homes are often dilapidated and thus more prone to catching fire. And response to a fire is spotty, what with missing or outdated firefighting equipment, lack of access to water, dilapidated houses that ignite quickly and even difficulty getting firefighters to respond.

When a fire broke out in a home in St. Theresa Point in January, nobody could find the fire chief. Recent calls by the Free Press to several fire halls on reserve resulted in no answer whatsoever.

About five years ago, most reserves used a fire-reporting system for remote communities operated by MTS. But the technology was outdated and the system was discontinued. Some of the communities were able to patch into the 911 system but Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakinak Chief David Harper says most couldn't afford it. (MKO is the umbrella organization for all northern reserves in Manitoba).

Instead, communities rely on a single emergency contact to call and a telephone chain to reach the volunteer firefighters after that.

Harper is preparing a proposal to have Ottawa fund a system to have all firefighters on reserves connected through a 911-type system.

"When you live in a remote community, it's not as if all your firefighters are together in one spot waiting for a call," he said. "They're spread out."

If each of them had a pager or a cellphone that would be called when a fire breaks out, it would help improve response times.

But getting such a system improved will be years in the making if the last year of effort is any indication.

The documents obtained through access to information -- a series of internal emails, memos, briefing notes and reports between January 2010 and January 2011 -- show politics and inflated levels of bureaucracy repeatedly get in the way of decisions being made or even information being shared.

MKO refused to even join the working group for political reasons. Some kind of strained relationship between the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Manitoba Association of Native Fire Fighters had the federal government acting as a go-between to try to get information on firefighter-training statistics and prevention programs.

Nobody seems to know what any particular reserve has in terms of fire-protection services at any given moment. Any time there is a fire, the first question from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada officials always seems to be whether or not the reserve even has a fire truck. (Nearly one in five of them do not).

 

IN January, after the death of two-month-old Errabella Harper in St. Theresa Point, a number of emails flew between Ottawa and Manitoba about what fire protection was actually available, not just there but on every reserve.

"Do we have regions/reserves with fire trucks without fire halls?" regional director Anna Fontaine wrote on Jan. 28.

The answer is yes, there are six reserves with a fire truck but no fire hall to keep it in. Another 12 reserves have neither a fire truck nor a fire hall.

Among the reserves with a fire truck and no fire hall was St. Theresa Point. The fire hall burned down in 2009 and hasn't yet been rebuilt.

The federal office has been working on a national fire-protection strategy for First Nations but was seemingly unaware of the Manitoba working group. It wasn't until it was reported on by the Free Press following a fatal fire earlier this year that anyone at the national headquarters asked about it and what it might contribute to the national discussion.

The working group that was supposed to complete its work within a month couldn't even get all the members to participate in a conference call for more than a month. Eventually, the idea of a conference call was dropped in favour of individual interviews.

A draft report was prepared in January 2011. The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs was to respond with its own version a month later.

It never happened.

Among the problems appears to be a dispute between Ottawa and the AMC about funding. The AMC says not enough money is provided to reserves for fire protection.

But Ottawa says there is nothing that shows how the existing funds -- about $2.4 million a year directly to First Nations -- are actually used, and until that information appears there is no proof more money is needed.

Daren Mini, executive director of the Manitoba Association of Native Fire Fighters, said MANFF participated and has no idea now what is going on with the review.

He said he has never received a copy of the draft report. It was released to the media in the access to information request but not to all the members of the working group.

There are some signs and reason to hope things might improve. Clearly, the spate of fatal fires has achieved the critical mass needed to attract the attention of the powers that be. A national fire-protection strategy has been developed.

In June, an analysis of firefighting capacities and risks on all 67 reserves in Manitoba began as a joint venture of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the province's fire commissioner.

That same month, Manitoba's chief medical examiner called an inquest to search for answers in the wake of two fatal fires in January and March of this year. No date has been set for it to take place.

But some of the answers to what is wrong are already contained in the documents -- either overtly or between the lines.

In particular, it's a lack of a cohesive firefighting strategy.

Ottawa provides funding but it's up to each reserve to decide how to spend it. There are no standards and the reserves don't have to tell Ottawa -- at least not yet -- how they spend the money.

Brock Holowachuk, the emergency co-ordinator for the Manitoba regional office of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, wrote in a memo in May 2010 that a national plan to improve fire standards on reserves may be impossible unless the government is prepared to force First Nations to meet certain standards and levels of accountability around fire protection.

"If the objective is to seek national-level improvements and consistency around fire protection, we might struggle with that in the absence around standards (for example, number of fire inspections, smoke detectors, building requirements, qualifications and training, firefighting apparatus and capacity) and accountability, (simply, what will happen if standards are not met.)," Holowachuk wrote.

The lack of standards, old equipment, sometimes no equipment, is a major issue.

In Roseau River last January, firefighters trying to battle the blaze that killed 41-year-old Daphne Benjoe and seriously injured her 16-year-old daughter, Alandice, had no access to water because the fire hydrants were all frozen. The fire hydrants and lines had not had their usual annual maintenance in the fall prior to the fire because of a dispute between the band and its third-party management team about funding for additional workers to do the job.

When fire broke out in little Curtis Laporte's house, firefighters were relying on water carried in the truck itself. It ran out and had to go back to get more. By the time they got back, the barbecue propane tank had exploded and the house was lost.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 20, 2011 A6

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