First Nations fire services in crisis

Emergency fire service in many northern Manitoba First Nations communities remains at crisis levels, says the head of the group representing northern chiefs.
Members of the volunteer fire department on the Shamattawa First Nation in northern Manitoba could not be found when this home burned down in January, killing an 11-year-old boy. ((CBC))

Emergency fire service in many northern Manitoba First Nations communities remains at crisis levels, says the head of the group representing northern chiefs.

Chief David Harper, leader of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, told CBC News he constantly lobbies — to no avail — for adequate services and funding from government.

Sixty-three First Nations communities receive a total of $3.2 million a year for emergency fire service, Harper said.

A single community doesn't get much once the money is all divided up, he said, suggesting Indian and Northern Affairs Canada needs to triple the funding.

"You've got to maintain your truck and you've got to maintain equipment," Harper said.

Communities can't offer help

In January, a CBC News investigation found seven out of 10 First Nations communities couldn't provide help in a fire. Trucks and equipment are often in poor working condition and volunteer firefighters can be difficult to recruit.

According to statistics from fire officials, nearly a quarter of fire fatalities in Manitoba occur in First Nations communities.

The investigation followed the death of an 11-year-old boy whose remains were found in the rubble of a house that burned down on Shamattawa First Nation.

RCMP tried to contact the local volunteer fire department without success. Curtis Smith, who heads the Manitoba Association of Native Firefighters, said shortly after the incident that fire response in remote communities can be a hit-and-miss venture.

Nancy Powderhorn, director of operations in Tadoule Lake, said there is no fire service at all in the isolated northern community, which is reachable only by plane, snowmobile or dog team sleds.

"It's just like we're forgotten," said Powderhorn, who has lobbied several aboriginal agencies for help for more than four years. "Is it too far to deal with us? I don't know."

Tadoule Lake's annual fire budget is $400 — enough to buy a handful of fire extinguishers, she said.