UNDER THE NORTHERN SKY: Fires Are All Too Common On First Nations

Life in a remote northern Aboriginal community has many difficulties. One of the greatest dangers I recall during the cold winter months was home fires.

Our homes were surrounded by many dangers associated with fire and the potential for disaster. Since electrical heating can be expensive and even prohibitive for some Native communities, people resort to using wood stoves. During my childhood in my home community of Attawapiskat, the iron wood stove at the centre of our home was a normal part of life. Mom and dad always assigned us the daily chore of bringing in an arm load of wood whenever we came through the door. We were cautioned to stay away from the hot stove and our parents kept a close eye on the baking pipes and stray sparks that fell when the stove door was opened.

The odds seemed stacked against us. We lived in substandard homes with not enough insulation even though we were situated in the one of the coldest regions of the country. This meant we relied heavily on wood heat. For those individuals who did not have the resources to heat with wood, they relied on electrical heating which also could be hazardous as heaters running continually on high could catch fire.

I remember as a child that it was was a normal part of every winter to hear the screams of fire as some poor unfortunate family would have their home go up in flames. We would all run out to investigate and thankfully much of the time the fires were small and quickly extinguished by quick thinking individuals with little or no fire training. At times the fires were terrible and resulted in the loss of life or severe injury.

Some terrible memories came back to me when I read of a house fire at the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation in Saskatchewan recently, where two small children died. The fact that the community was no longer able to run its own fire services and instead had to rely on outside help rang all too familiar to me. I was reminded of the great difficulties my home community and many other First Nations across Canada have to face on an ongoing basis when it comes to fire protection.

On several occasions in my home community, we watched in horror as homes burned with people trapped in them. A tragic fire in a small remote First Nation hits everyone so hard as everyone is so close knit. There are few things worse than being part of a helpless crowd look on as a home is devoured by flames.

Although things have progressed over the past 20 years or so there are still many challenges on First Nations all across this country when it comes to fire protection. In many cases there is just not enough funding to put together a state of the art volunteer firefighting service. Adequate management and training is not what it should be and many First Nations have lots of fire accidents waiting to happen.

Due to the fact that many homes are still heated by wood and these houses are not well insulated, the chance of a fire in the midst of freezing temperatures is great. In many northern First Nations, the winters are very cold with months of freezing temperatures. That means that people are having to maintain big wood fires in their stoves or use constant full on electrical heating to keep warm. In addition there is a housing crisis in First Nations across Canada and often homes are crammed with too many people.

As you can imagine all of the above conditions can end up producing the environment for tragic fires such as the one in Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation. There is a need for more funding, better management and training for the volunteer firefighters and the development of decent housing. It is time for the governments, non Native and Native to step up and soundly tackle this problem.


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