WINNIPEG - SOME of Manitoba's finest sharpshooters showed off their marksmanship -- with water -- in a North Winnipeg parking lot Saturday afternoon.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/8/2009 (4289 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Lionel Munroe gets support from Marty McKay from the Garden Hill Fire Department during First Nations firefighting competition on Saturday.

TREVOR.HAGAN@FREEPRESS.MB.CA

Lionel Munroe gets support from Marty McKay from the Garden Hill Fire Department during First Nations firefighting competition on Saturday.

WINNIPEG - SOME of Manitoba's finest sharpshooters showed off their marksmanship -- with water -- in a North Winnipeg parking lot Saturday afternoon.

In addition to knocking down targets with firefighting hoses, the volunteer firefighters also displayed their skills in replacing a burst hose length, hose rolling and assembling lengths of hose together, all at top speed.

Teams from 15 First Nations volunteer fire departments took part in the 19th annual Manitoba Association of Native Fire Fighters (MANFF) regional competition on Saturday in the hopes of representing the province at the national championships next month in Quebec.

Christian Edwards, chief of the Sagkeeng department, located an hour north of Winnipeg on the east side of Lake Winnipeg, said each skill-testing event simulates real-life firefighting scenarios in which time is of the essence.

"We're very serious in honing our skills and providing a service to our communities, but we're here to have some fun, too. You also get that camaraderie with your buddies," he said, noting his department already has a pair of national title belts from 2001 and 2003.

Despite the skill and speed on display, Curtis Smith, executive director of MANFF, said more needs to be done to ensure volunteer firefighters have the tools they need to do their jobs. He said his group and some affiliates are lobbying local aboriginal leaders and the federal government to provide more money to expand the number of fire departments in some of Manitoba's most remote communities.

"More funding will save lives," he said. "Because of the distance we have to travel sometimes, by the time we get there the house will be well involved (in flames) or it's gone already."

Nobody knows that better than Edwards and his fellow firefighters in Sagkeeng. Thirteen years ago this month, a fire at a day care in Pine Falls claimed the life of Katrina Rae Guimond. One of the first firefighters on the scene was then-chief Ron Guimond, who was unable to save his three-year-old granddaughter from the blaze.

Katrina Rae's uncle, Mike Fontaine, a four-year firefighting veteran, said the little girl continues to inspire him and his mates.

"She's always in the back of my mind. Everybody got out except her," he said. "I want to try to save as many people as I can and extinguish fires as fast as I can so nobody has to go through the heartbreak of losing a loved one like that."

One of the greatest challenges for aboriginal firefighters is the use of wood-frame construction on many reserves, which means houses can burn to the ground in a matter of minutes.

Willard Bittern, who has been fighting fires in Poplar River for 20 years, said there is no more helpless a feeling than getting to a fire and realizing it's too late. One of his first-ever calls was to a relative's house, which was fully engulfed when his truck arrived. They were unable to save a small child trapped inside.

"We couldn't do anything. That was hard for me," he said.

Bittern said despite the emotional highs and lows, he loves the challenge of his job and being a role model for his six children.

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca