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'They will save lives': Hamilton donates 2 fire trucks to northwestern Ontario First Nations

The city of Hamilton has donated a pair of surplus fire trucks to Couchiching and Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nations in northwestern Ontario. In both communities, the vehicles will replace 40-year-old pumpers.

Surplus pumpers will replace 40-year-old vehicles in Couchiching and Nigigoonsiminikaaning

Chief Will Windigo of the Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nation (centre), along with Randy Moss, Hamilton's deputy fire chief (left) and Dave Cunliffe, Hamilton's fire chief (right) pose beside the pumper truck, which the city donated to the northwestern Ontario Indigenous community. ( Tyler Moffit/Fort Frances Fire Department)

The city of Hamilton has donated a pair of surplus fire trucks to Couchiching and Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nations in northwestern Ontario.

The pumpers, which are 1997 Freightliner three-person commercial cab vehicles with a 1,350 gallon water tank and a 420 gallon per-minute-pump, are a welcome addition to both communities.

The fire truck currently in use in Nigigoonsiminikaaning — a community of about 400 people, located 300 kilometres west of Thunder Bay — is nearly double that age, said Chief Will Windigo.

New pumpers are 'a huge relief'

"We do try our best to make it workable but anything goes wrong with it mechanically, it's hard to find the parts," Windigo continued. "It's very challenging to keep that one in operation."

In fact, the chief and band council had just prioritized getting a new pumper, when he was told about Hamilton's offer.

"It was such a huge relief to receive such a phone call ... just to be thought of like that," he said.

Christine Jourdain, the acting executive director of Couchiching First Nation, said she is also encouraged by the donation and the connections it has created. Couchiching is roughly 350 kilometres west of Thunder Bay.

'Step in the right direction'

"It shows us they're out there thinking of us, so I think it's a step in the right direction, where it's going to hopefully open more doors and build more bridges," Jourdain said.

Her community has seen an increase in residential fires in recent years, according to the long-time volunteer firefighter, whose father actually started the local service back in 1973.

That increase is concerning because currently, the First Nation has only three fire trucks, one of them dating back to 1978 and another purchased in 2006 for "a lot of money."

Jourdain said the community figured it would be at least a decade before they could afford to update their fleet, but now "we'll have two pretty good trucks with the amount of water needed to be able to fight the fires," she said.

Christine Jourdain (centre with sunglasses) joined other members of the Couchiching volunteer fire department and the Hamilton fire service for the handover of the new pumper. ( Tyler Moffit/Fort Frances Fire Department)

Hamilton had to retire the pumpers in order to meet insurance standards, said Dave Cunliffe, the fire chief in the southern Ontario city.

He explained that urban fire departments replace equipment based on a standard put-out by the Fire Underwriters of Canada, the agency which grades fire services for the insurance industry.

But Cunliffe knew the trucks were still in good condition. He teamed up with the senior project manager of  Hamilton's Urban Indigenous Strategy and together they reached out to the Office of the Ontario Fire Marshal, which oversees the Northern Ontario Fire Protection Program, about the possibility of donating the vehicles.

'They will save lives'

"For me, it's like seeing your children grow up and now they're moving on to the next phase of their journey and Hamilton's going to pass the torch of these two trucks to the fire chiefs and firefighters within these two communities and I know they will save lives and for me it doesn't get any better," said Cunliffe.

The Ontario Chief Coroner has announced that it is launching an investigation after nearly 60 people have died in dozens of residential fires in Indigenous communities in the past decade.

Many First Nations leaders have spoken out about the need for better firefighting equipment but also the lack of funding to buy it.

You can hear the full story about these fire trucks from CBC's Superior Morning here.