WINNIPEG - RCMP officers who responded to two fatal house fires on remote Manitoba reserves described Monday the futile efforts of neighbours trying to douse the flames with buckets, wet towels and little more than the water pressure of a garden hose.
An inquest, which wraps up 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 it claimed the life of two-month-old Errabella Harper. A second fire about two months later in God's Lake Narrows, started by an outdated space heater, killed Demus James and his two grandchildren, Throne Kirkness, 2, and Kayleigh Okemow, 3.
Const. Mark Stienwandt, who was stationed with the Island Lake RCMP, testified the house in St. Theresa Point was engulfed by the time he got to it. People were trying in vain to put out the fire with buckets of water carried from community water trucks.
"I was pretty upset they were having to run back to get 80 gallons of water at a time when the house was sitting there burning," he said. "There was no fire department, no fire hall with people on call."
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.
An internal report from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada estimated it will take $28-million injection in federal funding to cut down on the number of fatalities, but only a fraction of that amount has been approved.
A recent survey of Manitoba First Nations found only 15 per cent said they had enough hose to battle a fire. Almost one-third did not have a fire truck and 39 per cent did not have a fire hall.
When the blaze happened in St. Theresa Point, the community's fire truck was broken, in a garage, with no fire hoses. No one knew where the keys were.
Fires on the reserve were a regular occurrence, Stienwandt testified. They happened so frequently, he said RCMP were very rarely called. Officers would only find out about a house fire if they drove by and inquired about the charred remains of a home after the fact, he said.
"If it was going to burn safely, they would just let it burn," Stienwandt said.
Const. Alexander Key was one of the first RCMP officers on the scene in God's Lake Narrows in March 2011. The reserve didn't have a fire truck and the community's water truck was brought in. A nearby fire hydrant "was not in use or operational," Key testified.
On its own, he said the water truck had the water pressure of "little more than a garden hose."
"It was not, by any means, fire suppression," Key said. "(The fire) essentially burnt itself out. The water didn't have a lot to do with it."
A neighbour kicked down the front door but was driven back by flames and smoke, Key said. He grabbed two wet towels to try to get further inside the house but "that didn't work," he said.
Once fire consumed most of the house, Const. Morgan Page took stock of the smoldering wreckage. Inside the kitchen, she told the inquest she found the body of Demus James.
"It was very badly burned," she said. "I knew it was a body but it was unrecognizable to identify who it was."
When she walked around to the other side of the house, she found two other small bodies.
"I could see they were wearing diapers," she said.
The inquest is scheduled to wrap up Thursday after hearing from other witnesses, including Manitoba's fire commissioner.