POLITICS

Manitoba chief says fire inspections would condemn reserve homes

12/16/2014 12:39 EST | Updated 02/15/2015 05:59 EST
WINNIPEG - The chief of a northern Manitoba reserve where a baby girl died in a house fire said his band can't afford to have its homes inspected for fire hazards.

Chief David McDougall of St. Theresa Point First Nation told an inquest into the girl's death that the band essentially has to choose between turning a blind eye to frayed wires and outdated space heaters or have the homes inspected and risk mass evictions.

"We'd end up condemning all the homes because of poor maintenance, poor workmanship," McDougall told the inquest Tuesday. "To inspect those units would mean removing everyone from their homes. We don't have the money to accommodate them."

Many homes still rely on wood stoves and others aren't built to handle electrical heaters, he said. New homes are built with hard-wired smoke detectors and central heating, but there is a chronic shortage of housing on the reserve, McDougall said.

The band doesn't have the money to upgrade older houses, so many people are afraid to have them inspected.

"To do it or not to do it — it's a tough call."

An inquest, which is to conclude this week in Winnipeg, is examining the deaths of three children and one adult in two separate fires on northern reserves in 2011.

Five children escaped a fire in St. Theresa Point in January 2011, which started in the chimney, but two-month-old Errabella Harper died. A second fire about two months later in God's Lake Narrows, started by an outdated space heater, killed Demus James and his two grandchildren, Throne Kirkness, 2, and Kayleigh Okemow, 3.

The inquest has heard how, in both fires, neighbours fought the flames in vain with buckets of water they carried from the community's fire trucks and with low-pressure hoses similar to garden hoses.

The blaze in St. Theresa Point happened when the community's fire truck was broken, in a garage, with no fire hoses. No one knew where the keys were. The band now has a working fire truck, which it is leasing, and a new fire hall.

The whole community was shaken by baby Errabella's death, McDougall said.

"We can't let this happen again," he said.

Statistics show that residents of Manitoba First Nations are far more likely to die in house fires than people living off reserve, who are more likely to escape with injuries. Although fires on reserves make up less than five per cent of all fires in Manitoba, they account for up to half the fatalities.

A recent survey of Manitoba First Nations found serious deficiencies in firefighting capabilities. Only 15 per cent said they had enough hoses to battle a fire. Almost one-third did not have a fire truck and 39 per cent did not have a fire hall.

The survey, conducted by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Office of the Fire Commissioner, recommended regular inspections of band homes to identify fire hazards and ensure there are multiple exits.

But McDougall said many people barricade their homes because of crime and would have a tough time passing an inspection, especially with 18 people living in a three-bedroom home.

"I know I have two rooms where people would have a tough time getting out if a fire were to occur," he said. "We're a little overcrowded in my home."

The band tried installing smoke alarms in some older homes a while ago, McDougall said, but people soon were asking for them to be removed, because their cooking fumes and tobacco were regularly setting them off.

Since the 2011 fatal fire, the band's 24 volunteer firefighters have received basic training, he said.

But he added the band is not allowed to use its fire department budget to pay its firefighters or even its fire chief, who has another full-time job on the reserve.

"It says specifically we cannot use it for salaries," McDougall said. "It's an outdated funding model from when St. Theresa Point had 300 people. Now, there are 4,000 people and it's the same."

The inquest is scheduled to wrap up Thursday after hearing from several more witnesses including Manitoba's fire commissioner.