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Fire destroys home in Keno City, Yukon

An elderly man's home has been left a pile of rubble after a house fire in Keno City, Yukon, Wednesday morning.

Local residents renew call for better fire services in small community

The house fire began at about 10 a.m. Wednesday, according to neighbour Amber Smith. The man who lived there was able to get out safely with his cat, Smith said. (Amber Smith)

An elderly man's home has been left a pile of rubble after a house fire in Keno City, Yukon, Wednesday morning.

Amber Smith of the Keno City Residents Council says the fire started at about 10 a.m. on Wednesday, at a home just across the street from her.

She says the man who lived there was able to get out safely with his cat, and also managed to salvage some contents before his house was consumed by the fire.

The small remote community has no volunteer fire department, so a crew was called from Mayo, about 40 kilometres away. Smith said it took about 45 minutes to an hour for the Mayo crew to get there and by then it was too late.

"There was really nothing they could have done by the point they arrived. I mean, it was pretty much down to the ground anyhow," Smith said.

She said residents did their best to fight the flames, using whatever improvised means they could find.

Smith said her neighbour was able to salvage some contents from his home before it was destroyed. (Amber Smith)

"We were hooking up garden hoses to the kitchen sink and to a small pump we have, but at 36 below, that's completely ineffective," she said. 

In an email on Wednesday afternoon, a spokesperson for Yukon's Department of Community Services said RCMP had determined the cause of the fire to be accidental, and there would be no formal investigation.

Residents decry lack of local fire services

It's the second big fire the community has seen in the last couple of months. In December, the iconic Keno City Hotel also burned to the ground.

That fire prompted calls from Keno residents for a public inquiry into fire services in their community. In an open letter addressed to the premier, ministers and the fire marshal in December, the Keno City residents' group said its fire truck was removed from the community without notice in April 2019.

Smith says Wednesday's fire shows that the issue isn't going away.

"It's absolutely heartbreaking to keep going through this and I really don't know what else has to happen for us to be able to affect some change," she said. 

Local business owner Jim Milley was outraged by Wednesday's fire, placing blame directly on the territorial government for ignoring the community's needs.

A fire crew from Mayo arrived about 45 minutes to an hour later, Smith said. (Amber Smith)

"This is the second building in Keno we have lost as a direct result of incompetence in the Yukon government," Milley said.

He says a fire truck in Keno might have saved the man's home destroyed on Wednesday.

"We could have put it out, if we had a truck," Milley said.

"He would still have a home. A bit of a clean up, but you still have a home. Now, he has nothing."

'Uniquely challenging'

A written statement from the Department of Community Services on Wednesday said that firefighting in Yukon's small and remote communities is "uniquely challenging, with volunteer recruitment and retention being a key component." 

"Personnel with the proper training is integral to a safe fire response, especially when large equipment such as fire apparatuses are involved. The Government of Yukon is happy to work with Keno and all communities to train volunteers, but cannot provide equipment to people who are not properly trained to use it safely," the statement reads.

Milley scoffs at the idea that people in Keno wouldn't use firefighting equipment safely.

"You're talking about a town where everyone here is an equipment operator. This is a former mining town. Everybody in it can run heavy equipment," he said.

The Yukon government also says it is making progress on a promised independent review of fire services in rural communities. The aim is to have a report with recommendations completed by the fall.

With files from Philippe Morin

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