Kahnawake Native Renewable Centre works on solution to fatal house fires

The new fire stove design, conceived by a group in Kahnawake, includes an automatic fire extinguisher and its own alarm.

Centre hopes to have new, 'safer' stove technology in remote community homes by year's end

Gillian Ward is the managing partner of Kahnawake Native Renewable Centre behind the new FireSafe stove system. (Jonas Thiessen)

When Montreal resident Gillian Ward heard people in remote Indigenous communities are 10 times more likely to die in a structural fire than anyone else in the country, she decided she needed to do something about it.

"Part of [the reason] is the fire response is limited, part of it is it might be harder to find the location and part of the reason can be that the alarm isn't going to work because of a power outage," explained Ward.

"Rather than lament the fact that this is the way it is, we started to think about how can we group technologies together to overcome all of those issues." 

Working with her colleagues at the Kahnawake Native Renewable Centre (KNRC) — a countrywide partnership initially founded with the goal of improving drinking water in Indigenous communities  — they designed a new type of fire stove that just might help. 

Dubbed the FireSafe stove system, the design combines a biomass stove system with thermal sensors that automatically set off a fire extinguisher in the chimney when they sense heat, a light and sound alarm system that alerts local firefighters and the people inside the home, and an exterior strobe light that makes it easier for authorities to find the house. 

The system would also include its own thermoelectric backup generator — a key element for remote communities often hit by power outages. 

"This allows us to have a backup power supply so in the event of a power failure, the alarm and the automated chimney fire extinguisher will still have power," said Ward, managing partner at the KNRC.

The design incorporates elements from five companies across Canada, and while each of the components already exists separately, this design would be the first to include them all in one stove. 

"My part in all of this, I see it as conducting an orchestra cause all of these players already had their instruments," said Ward. 

The project is still in its very early stages and still needs to undergo testing and acquire funding, but Ward hopes to get the device into homes as early at year's end. 

In the meantime, the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada has already voiced its support for the project and agreed to help with the testing phase once a prototype is built. 

"It will be the difference between some people dying and some people living," said Arnold Lazare, director of external relations for the firefighters association and the National Indigenous Fire Safety Council. 

Lazare looks forward to testing the system in his own home in the coming months.