Nfld. & Labrador

No one to call when home burns in area without fire service, but it doesn't have to be that way

Another home in an unincorporated area of the province without fire service burned to the ground over the weekend, raising the question of rural fire safety.

Home in Michael's Harbour, near Lewisporte, burned to ground last weekend

This home in Michael's Harbour was destroyed by fire over the weekend. (Karen Jones Lush/Facebook)

When a home or cabin in an area of the province without fire service burns, who do you call?

No one.

After a home in Michael's Harbour burned to the ground over the weekend, the mayor of nearby Lewisporte and the minister of municipal affairs say there are solutions to the problem. 

Mayor Betty Clarke says firefighters may have been able to save the home — which was empty at the time — if they had been able to respond quickly. 

She said after the blaze broke out, a chain of calls from police to the Lewisporte fire department to town officials held everything up, but fire crews did get to the home. 

"The building was destroyed. There was nothing anybody could do."

A problem of payment

Michael's Harbour, which had a population of 63 in 2016 according to Statistics Canada, is not part of an incorporated area.

Clarke said some families refused to pay a $50 annual fee to Lewisporte to have its volunteer fire department take care of the community. 

"Apparently three people wouldn't pay, and because it wasn't a unanimous decision … they had no fire services."

A fire destroyed Tyler Bennett’s home in Mattis Point on Dec. 26. The fire department in the nearby town of Stephenville Crossing didn't respond because the town cancelled coverage in 2018 after years of unpaid fees. (Tyler Bennett/Facebook)

Earlier this month, a home in Mattis Point burned down when the nearest fire department in Stephenville Crossing didn't respond. 

Like Lewisporte firefighters in Michael's Harbour, they wouldn't have been covered for insurance or injury compensation after Mattis Point cancelled services to the area in 2018.

Stephenville Crossing Mayor Lisa Lucas said the decision to cancel services was made after years of struggling to get payments from the smaller community.

The ultimate way to save all our grief and all our issues with this would be a regional approach.- Derrick Bragg

Municipal Affairs Minister Derrick Bragg said it's up to towns or local service districts to offer services to unincorporated areas without committees, and determine what the cost will be. 

Lewisporte had no way to collect the fees, "so it was a case of either all in, or no one was in," said Bragg. Otherwise, said the minister, the town would have to say, "'OK, we can respond to house No. 4 but we can't respond to house No.  5.'

"That would be very complicated from the town's perspective nearby," he said Wednesday. 

How regionalization could help

Bragg said many people don't want to pay fees or taxes, and there are a number of communities and cabin areas of the province without fire services. 

"When those people choose to live in those areas they know the service is not available to them," he said. 

That doesn't mean the government is looking at requiring people pay for fire services to fill these gaps. 

Municipal Affairs Minister Derrick Bragg says firefighters in the province tell him regionalization would improve fire services for rural areas. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

"The ultimate way to save all our grief and all our issues with this would be a regional approach," said Bragg, to organize the delivery of services to the province's spread-out population. 

The minister said Newfoundland and Labrador is unique in the number of people who don't pay for any services, whereas provinces like Nova Scotia and P.E.I. operate on county systems. 

"On every piece of land up there someone would pay a fee and someone would expect a service."

Bragg said the province's firefighters association feels regionalization would be a "big bonus" to several areas of the province.

But as those conversations continue, he recommends people wanting services in an area form a committee to organize an arrangement with a nearby community. 

Mayor Clarke said she's not sure how to get people to do that, as nobody wanted to join such a committee in Michael's Harbour when asked. 

"Where do we go from there?"

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from CBC Newfoundland Morning


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