Burned child highlights safety concerns

A year after a house fire killed two toddlers in Nibinamik, the First Nation still doesn't have a working fire truck.

Nibinamik First Nation says there's not enough money to maintain emergency vehicles

Community members at Nibinamik First Nation say their fire truck hasn't worked for years. (Jody Porter/CBC)

A year after a house fire killed two toddlers in Nibinamik, the First Nation still doesn't have a working fire truck.

And the grieving family is left to find hope in the tiniest survivor.

Last January, when someone told Gerald Neshinapaise his house was on fire, he started running home from work. Then he jumped on a friend's snowmobile, "and when we got there, I saw the mother crying her guts out. I was hoping my kids weren't there," he said in an interview this week.

But they were.

No fire truck came. The house was destroyed. Two year-old Xavier and three-year-old Emerald died in the fire.

"I felt helpless at that time," Neshinapaise said.

No working fire truck

The former fire chief, Raymond Sugarhead, said he feels helpless too when it comes to providing fire protection in a place where nearly everyone heats with wood stoves. The fire truck hasn't worked for years.

"It's poor maintenance because we have no equipment and no facility to put the truck," he said.

Sugarhead said there's no money in the First Nation's tight budget for storing a fire truck — and no tools in the community to fix it.

Meanwhile, Gerald Neshinapaise struggles to get past his feeling of helplessness from the day of the fire and care for his 18-month-old daughter, Amber, who survived.

"She’s got burns on her head and her face and her arms … she's healing pretty good," he said.

Some relatives said Amber is inspiring the entire community to get past last year's tragedy. She was found slumped over in her exer-saucer, unconscious, badly burned — but alive.

Grand Chief Stan Beardy plays with Nibinamik First Nation resident Amber Neshinapaise. The toddler was badly burned in a house fire last year that killed her two brothers. (Jody Porter/CBC)

The playful toddler now wears pressure bandages, which cover bright red scars on her face and arms.

Band councillor Stanley Oskineegish said these tragedies happen far too often.

"I think we need to have all the proper fire equipment, fire trucks, fire hoses and things like that," he said.

Oskineegish said the community's fire truck was in the garage one year ago, when the fire broke out … waiting for repairs. It's still there now. The band council doesn't have the money to fix it.

Stan Beardy, the grand chief for the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (which includes Nibinamik), said the situation is shameful.

"What we saw about this child was heart-breaking … that really touched me," he said.

"That could happen any day because we don't have proper safety in our homes because a lot of our homes depend on wood stoves for heating."

Most of the homes in the community of 600 are log cabins built in the 1970s and 80s. The wood stoves that heat them are aging, thin and cracked — and sparks often fly out from them. Residents say three to four fatal fires occur each year. The people of Nibinamik First Nation say they don't want any more tragedies, which is why they're calling for help.