Community leaders in Mishkeegogamang, located 320 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, say members of the northwestern Ontario First Nation are struggling to cope with a dozen deaths over the last three months.
They say the loss of so many lives in the isolated community is taking its toll as families continually grieve.
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The acting fire chief and public works supervisor in Mishkeegogamang said the last tragic incident — a fire that killed four people — was especially tough.
Jeff Loon said emergency responders knew that people were trapped in the burning home. “When I got the call, I was informed of that … which made it a little harder. [It] still is, I guess," he said.
The community is plagued by poor housing, often with makeshift wood stoves and inadequate insulation.
The fire truck is also stored in an unheated building, meaning it can't store water in the winter.
In the latest fire, volunteers did all they could, Loon said.
"By the time I got to the fire, probably about 20 minutes elapsed maybe. [When I] got there, most of the house was already gone, so we did what we could [and] hooked up the hoses to a hydrant,” he said.
Coping in the cold
Recently, Mishkeegogamang’s chief declared a state of emergency in the community, asking for increased counselling services to deal with the crisis.
Chief Connie Gray-McKay said there has also been an increase in substance abuse in the community and there have been more than 60 transfers of people to hospital by air ambulance in the last two months.
The community, which has an on-reserve population of close to 1,000 people, has been through 12 funerals since Christmas Eve.
Most of Mishkeegogamang’s homes are equipped with a wood-burning stove that looks like an oil barrel, hooked up to a chimney. There’s a hole on top through which logs can be placed, and a hole at the bottom of the barrel for air intake.
The stove is usually located near the only door to the house, in a shared area such as a kitchen or living room.
That’s where Chantelle Skunk, a mother of four children, has been sleeping lately so she can keep an eye on the stove as it continually runs during this year’s long, cold winter. The fire has to keep burning to heat the bedrooms located near the back of the house.
"I've moved to the living room,” she said. “It's too cold back there too."
Skunk said she bought a heater for her boys’ room, so they can sleep in their room, otherwise it would be too cold for them.
Mishkeegogamang’s leaders say they want more help from the government in terms of getting funding to build a heated garage for their fire truck and to get answers to their questions about the fire truck itself. They wonder if it’s even the right kind of fire truck to be using in remote, northern communities.
A contractor is arranging to go from house to house with the aim of making them more fire-proof. The work entails making sure wood stoves are properly installed, ensuring there is enough room between the chimney and wall, and installing fire-proofing on the wall.
There are plans to install extra fire extinguishers and smoke alarms throughout the community.
Loon said community members are engaging in fire education as well.