Deep River, Ont., may have to face fires alone as the province is investigating after the town's fire service staff was illegally halved.
Over the past year, the staff of nine full-time employees was reduced to five as firefighters retired, took sick leave or didn't have their contracts extended. The shortage means there's no firefighter on duty evenings and weekends. The town bylaw states there must be at least eight fire staff employed at all times.
In a letter send in early August recently obtained by CBC News, the Office of the Fire Marshal said they had "significant and long term concerns with the Town of Deep River's efforts to meet its responsibilities for fire protection."
They asked the town council to answer a list of 15 questions, including details of the fire plan, how they intend to meet service levels with dwindling staff and how they would inform residents of the changes.
When the Nov. 3 response deadline rolled around, there was no word from Deep River.
Mayor Joan Lougheed and the Office of the Fire Marshal did not respond to CBC's request for an interview
Province could withdraw mutual aid
Because the remaining full-time firefighters are unable to take care of their own jurisdiction of Deep River, the town also runs the risk of losing their right to mutual aid from neighbouring towns since they can't maintain the staffing required to be a part of the agreement.
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"The reason that's a problem is that's our fallback. If we have a problem we can't deal with we rely on mutual aid," said Larry Dumoulin, a resident who has been petitioning town council and Ontario's ombudsman for more transparency throughout the debacle.
The fire marshal determined Deep River is currently "not in keeping with the principles of mutual aid … [And we are] prepared to evaluate, and if necessary remove Deep River from the plan, to ensure that the plan is utilized as intended and agreed to by all participants."
The organization representing Ontario's firefighters is also condemning the actions that led to this ultimatum.
"The Fire Fighters' Association of Ontario is deeply disappointed to hear of the events that have transpired in the community of Deep River," they said in a statement.
"[Everyone] should be working together and come to an amicable agreement as to what level of fire protection services can be realistically and fiscally achieved, maintained and provided to the residents."
'Decisions will get made by default'
While the threat of action from the province looms, council has provided little information to the public. Dumoulin's cries for clarity have been met with silence.
"People are simply unaware of what's going on and if we continue down this road, decisions will get made by default instead of intentionally," he said.
Deep River is the smallest community in Ontario with full-time firefighters, at a cost of $1.5 million per year.
In the summer, the mayor of Deep River defended the decision to shrink the fire service, saying her municipality of 4,000 people simply couldn't afford to operate a fire department with nine full-time firefighters.
The town pays about $830 per household for fire services, an amount the mayor said is 10 times what comparable municipalities pay.