Cree Nation Government works on cabin fire safety after Bussy Lake deaths

The Cree Nation Government's regional fire marshal is working with the Cree Trappers Association to improve fire safety in hunting camps.

Fire prevention course, installation of smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in the works

Jason Coonishish, left, and pilot Philip Petawabano stand with a cross erected at the site of the cabin fire at Bussy Lake. (submitted by Jason Coonishish)

The father of the youngest victim of the Bussy Lake cabin fire in the James Bay region of Quebec says he would like to see fire safety improved in the territory.

A coroner's report released last month said a smoke detector could have saved the lives of Jason Coonishish's son and brother, along with three other hunters last spring.

Coonishish's son Chiiwetin, 22, his brother Emmett, 39, as well as Charlie Gunner, 37, Kevin Loon, 33, and David Jimiken, 38, were found dead after a cabin fire in a remote area 300 kilometres north of Chibougamau on April 1, 2015.

"To prevent this from happening to our trappers, there should be fire detectors and carbon monoxide detectors," said Coonishish.

The report by Quebec coroner Luc Malouin found the five hunters died in their sleep of asphyxia caused by the smoke from the fire. Malouin said there was nothing left of the cabin where the men died to lead investigators to the cause of the fire, but there had been a woodstove and a propane oven in the dwelling. 

"The tests confirmed they had no alcohol and drugs in their system," said Coonishish. "That is what made me happy reading the report."

But while he supports installing smoke and CO detectors, Coonishish wonders how to prevent their batteries from constantly needing to be replaced during the winter months.

"What I do know about the detectors — when it comes to the winter when it's -30, the batteries can freeze and then they don't work, so to find a way for them not to have that happening."

The Cree Nation Government's regional fire marshal Lee Roy Blacksmith is working with the Cree Trappers Association to improve safety in hunting camps.

The Cree Nation Government's regional fire marshal Lee Roy Blacksmith is working with the Cree Trappers Association to improve fire safety in hunting camps following the cabin fire deaths. (submitted by Lee Roy Blacksmith)

Blacksmith says learning how to maintain the detectors will be one of our priorities when it comes to fire prevention.

"It is our intention to strengthen the fire protection, to install smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors and fire extinguishers [in cabins]," says Blacksmith.

"Another thing we have found when it comes to hunters and trappers is that there is a need to provide a prevention course on how to prevent fires and if there is a fire, how to put it out."

Most cabins also have only one exit. Blacksmith said there is a requirement in the national fire safety code that all cabins should have two exits, where there would be an alternative exit in case of an emergency.

The firefighters in the Cree Nation have jurisdiction over category I lands, whereas Quebec's forest fire protection agency, Sopfeu, has jurisdiction over category II lands in the Cree territory.

Blacksmith says it takes time for Sopfeu to respond to remote fires, even if they make the trip, there are other factors that come to make the fire worse such as the wind.

Blacksmith says he witnessed a cabin fire when he was younger.

"It was difficult to hear of this ordeal," he says. 

"At that time, luckily no one was injured, but the cause of the fire was due all the things that were too close to the woodstove. We were able to put it out with the cabin intact. And then hearing about the five hunters that passed away triggered a flashback."

He says they are in the process of reviewing the fire protection bylaws under the Cree Nation Government.

Blacksmith also advised people to keep an eye on children as they tend to experiment with matches and lighters.

Coonishish says he has returned to Bussy Lake four times since the fire and says going there helps him heal.

"It makes me happy returning there," says Coonishish.

"Every time I see the places my son used to hunt successfully ... or when I see a particular mountain knowing I was out with them there. 

"I want to tell people not to stop going out on the land. It is our source of survival, as it helps us mentally, physically and emotionally."