Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Firefighting for cottages withdrawn

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FLIN FLON -- Where there's smoke, there's fire. But where there's a cottage blaze near Flin Flon, there won't be any municipal firefighters.

As of July 1, the City of Flin Flon has stopped dispatching its firefighters to structural fires at the cottage subdivisions just beyond its borders.

It's about fairness -- and money. The city wanted each road-accessible cottager to chip in $300 a year, minimum, if Flin Flon was to continue battling fires outside its taxable jurisdiction.

The cottagers -- or at least the ones with whom city officials spoke -- thought the price too high. And so the city-imposed deadline for a deal, Canada Day, came and went without any agreement.

That leaves cottagers in a perilous position, despite the not-entirely-comforting assurances from Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship that it will respond to cabin fires "wherever possible."

Conservation is trained and equipped more for forest and wildland fires than structural ones. And when responding to a structural fire, it says its firefighting efforts will be "limited to keeping a fire from spreading to nearby structures and forest."

Some cottagers have taken to do-it-yourself fire-protection kits, complete with lake pumps, and there has been some talk of forming a cottage fire department as is the case at the Paint Lake subdivision outside Thompson.

The worst-case scenario, unlikely as it may be, has become the elephant in the room: What if there's a major blaze requiring trained firefighters to enter a burning cottage to save lives?

That could lead to unspeakable tragedy, not to mention emotionally charged finger-pointing after the fact. But the situation is far too complex to condense into black and white.

For one, the North of 54 Cottage Owners Association, which represents area cabin owners, says it is not yet a legal entity and therefore can't sign fee agreements with anybody, including the city.

Even if those cottage reps who turned down the fire fee had agreed to the city's terms, it's not at all clear how the new system would have been enforced, though there was some suggestion the province would be asked to step in.

For another, cottagers may have a point when they argue Flin Flon's asking price of $300 per cabin is too steep. Ninety minutes to the southeast, the Town of The Pas has four separate fire protection agreements with surrounding cottagers, the costliest of which charges just $77 a cottage.

For its part the City of Flin Flon felt it could no longer justify, in this time of budgetary anguish, its years-old practice of subsidizing fire protection for non-residents.

Cottagers' insurance did not typically reimburse the city for the full cost of dousing a blaze, the city said, nor did it provide anything for the day-to-day operations of the fire department.

The city said it also spent years trying to work something out with the provincial government on this file but got nowhere. Push inevitably came to shove.

There are an estimated 400 cottages in the Flin Flon region, many of which are road-accessible and serve as luxurious year-round homes. The absence of a trained municipal fire department ready and willing to respond, even if it is 15 or 20 minutes away in Flin Flon, troubles people on both sides of this debate.

The situation is unsustainable and dangerous. The city should never have filled the role of fire protection without ensuring its costs were covered. And the province, responsible for the Crown lands where cottagers live, should never have made cottagers rely on such a shaky system.

Fortunately, there is still a chance we'll see an agreement. The province says it is interested in doing what it can. Many, perhaps most, cottagers still want a deal. And who knows, if need be the city may lower its asking price.

Now that the city has put its foot down, I have a funny feeling a deal that was so elusive just a few weeks ago will materialize with haste.


Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 18, 2013 A13

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