Fire safety champions in Keno City, Yukon, to pilot new territorial program

More than a year after two fires in the small community of about two dozen people destroyed an iconic hotel and a home, Keno City agreed to pilot a new fire prevention program.

'I see it as a way to build partnership with the fire marshal's office,' says resident

A house fire in Keno City, Yukon, on Feb. 10, 2021. It was the second fire in two months in the small community of about 24. In both instances, they had to call the nearest fire service in Mayo, about an hour away. (Amber Smith)

Keno City, Yukon, is one step closer to having fire protection services in its community.

A new fire safety champion program from the territorial government will be piloted in the community of about two dozen residents, about 335 kilometres north of Whitehorse. 

The program includes "fire prevention, safety and education activities in the community," said acting fire marshal Ursula Geisler, who added the territory is hoping to expand the program to other communities after it is implemented in Keno City.

"I see it as a way to build partnership with the fire marshal's office, which I think is badly needed given the history of events that have happened in town," said Amber Smith, who lives in Keno City. 

On Dec. 11, 2020, a fire destroyed the Keno City Hotel, an iconic landmark in the former mining boomtown. Two months later, a house was also destroyed by fire.

Since the community doesn't have a volunteer fire department, residents had to contact the closest volunteer force in Mayo, about an hour away.

The Keno City Hotel in Keno City, Yukon, was destroyed by fire on Dec. 11, 2020. A few days later, residents called for an independent public inquiry. (Kevin O'Hara/Facebook)

A few days after the hotel fire, a group representing the residents called for an independent public inquiry. The group wrote in a letter addressed to the premier, ministers and fire marshal that its fire truck was removed from the community without notice in 2019.

Last December, the Yukon government released a review of the territory's legislation related to fire services. It made 104 recommendations, including implementing a "fire protection in a box" program — giving small and remote communities some fire suppression gear like hoses, potable pumps, shovels and other equipment so they would have a basic capability to limit the spread of a structural fire.

Two fire safety champions identified

Geisler said she had a virtual meeting with some of the residents last Tuesday to discuss options. 

"We were able to identify two fire safety champions within the community who volunteered that they would step up," she said.

The volunteers are Smith and Sonia Stange-Hepner.

Smith said the program will empower them to talk to other residents about making their homes safer by discussing smoke detectors, clean chimneys and how to keep properties free from clutter and combustible materials.

She added her priority remains getting access to a source of water for the community to put out fires.

"We need water in this town, full stop," she said.

Smith has requested that the town have access to one of the wells that was destroyed in 2015 when attempted cleaning of the well caused it to collapse. 

While that water is not potable, she contends it's "certainly suitable for friends to put out a fire."

She added the town also needs some sort of equipment, such as an old decommissioned water truck or the "fire prevention in a box" program.

Moving forward

Geisler said having a fire truck in the community isn't an option at this point.

"If you have a fire truck, you also need to have a trained fire crew," she said. "So for smaller communities, that makes it a little bit hard to make that happen."

Ursula Geisler is Yukon's acting fire marshal. During a virtual meeting with residents of Keno City last week, she said residents agreed to pilot the new safety fire champion program which she hopes will be eventually be expanded to other communities in the territory. (Steve Silva/CBC)

She said she and staff from her office are going to Keno City to meet with its residents at the end of the month to "get to know the community members a bit better and then to work on some of the other options that we discussed."

Those include the "fire prevention in a box" program and installing sprinkler systems on buildings around town.

"Fire prevention is always the very best fire protection tool that we have," she said. "I think everyone's really keen to move forward and to have a fire prevention program for Keno."