STONEY NAKODA – In most communities, residents can go to sleep soundly knowing that in the unlikely event of a fire there are adequate firefighting resources to respond to an emergency.
While that might be the case for affluent communities such as Banff and Canmore, 45 kilometres down the road on the Stoney Nakoda First Nation reserve it’s a different story.
With two fire trucks and only three volunteer firefighters, the Stoney Nakoda Fire Department struggles to adequately cover a population of 3,700 spread out over 445 square kilometres.
In fact, the chronically underfunded fire department is only able to respond to emergencies Monday to Friday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. and even during those hours there’s no guarantee.
That became obvious this past summer when the Exshaw Fire Department had to respond to four major house fires on the reserve. No injuries were reported, however by the time the firefighters from Exshaw arrived each house was fully engulfed in flames, raising serious questions about fire protection for members of the First Nation.
“We know just from our membership that very few fire departments are adequately equipped and prepared to fight a house fire, or respond to any incidents that most fire departments will respond to,” said Richard Kent, vice-president of the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada.
For the 328,000 First Nations people who live on a reserve in Canada, the chances of dying in a house fire is 10.4 times higher than the rest of the country, according to a 2007 Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation report.
For most Canadians that statistic would be shocking, however for Kent it’s the harsh reality of life for most First Nations communities.
“Of course it’s shocking to everybody to hear that, but to myself and my colleagues that work with the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada, it’s unfortunately not that shocking because we’re the ones that go out and we’re the ones that do the fire investigations,” said Kent.
The Outlook tried several times over the course of three months to set up an interview with the Stoney Nakoda Fire Department, however the Stoney tribal council directed its fire chief to remain silent.
“I’m sorry it’s been difficult to get an interview set up,” wrote Jeff Beddome, the fire chief for the Stoney Nakoda Fire Department. “I have just been directed to decline an interview at this time.”
Emails to the Stoney tribal administration and council were also ignored.
Rob Shotclose, CEO for the Bearspaw band, declined an interview request, but said fire protection in Morley is seriously underfunded considering there are over 700 houses on the reserve and over 75 other buildings that need protection.
In Eden Valley, a satellite reserve with 650 residents, he said there is no fire protection at all and the community relies on the Municipal District of Foothills to respond to emergencies.
The lack of adequate fire coverage has become a growing concern for Rick Lyster, the fire chief for the Exshaw Fire Department, which regularly responds to calls on the reserve.
Since Jan. 1, his department has responded to 60 calls on the reserve, representing approximately one third of responses so far this year. Twelve of those responses were for a possible structure fire, four of which were confirmed house fires leading to total losses, while another five were extinguished.
Fortunately, there have been no serious injuries, or deaths this year, but that hasn’t always been the case.
“My memory isn’t as good as looking it up in the database, but I bet I’ve probably been to at least 20 fatalities on the reserve,” said Lyster, who has been the fire chief for the past 24 years.
“All the circumstances are different. Some of them were possibly homicides and some were accidental, but all fire-related.”
One of his biggest concerns is responding to a call in Morley when the fire department is needed for an emergency in Exshaw.
“So far we’ve been lucky,” said Lyster. “Sometimes it’s been pretty close, like we were just getting back and another call comes in.”
Despite his concerns, he said his department has never refused to respond.
“We don’t have to go to Morley, we can say no, but we’ve never done that,” said Lyster.
According to a 1995 agreement between the Municipal District of Bighorn and Stoney Nakoda First Nation, the MD may provide fire protection and rescue services as “backup assistance,” however the fire department is not obligated to respond, if in the opinion of the fire chief, not enough resources can be spared.
Regardless of the agreement, Lyster said his department responds when needed.
“You’ve got to help your neighbour, but every time you do that you’re taking a risk.”
The lack of adequate fire coverage on the reserve also means that it can take more than 30 minutes for firefighters from Exshaw to arrive on scene, dramatically increasing the likelihood a building will be fully engulfed when they arrive.
During a house fire on Aug. 30, Lyster said it took his crew a total of 35 minutes to get to the house, located east of Morley.
In most communities a response time of 35 minutes would cause public outrage, but according to Lyster it’s normal to take upwards of 30 minutes to respond to a call depending on the time and location of the incident.
He said part of the issue is that the Cochrane Fire Department doesn’t respond to calls on the reserve as often, leaving it to Exshaw to respond.
“Traditionally for many, many years they would look after the townsite of Morley and everything east of 133X, but over the years they have been pulling back quite a bit,” said Lyster.
“They’ve grown so much over the last few years that they get a lot of pressure to keep the firefighters in town and not be out elsewhere.”
Beyond his immediate concerns about public safety, he said he is also extremely concerned about his crew of volunteer firefighters burning out because of the number of false alarms they respond to on the reserve.
“Those 60 times we’re gone this year, so far a good portion of those are carbon monoxide detectors or a smoke detector’s batteries have gone dead,” said Lyster, explaining that the MD charged Stoney Nakoda First Nation $67,000 in 2017 for responding to 26 false alarms.
“You want to go if you’re needed and guys are OK with that, but two or three times a week going down there because someone’s smoke detector is going, or it’s their sewage alarm, they get tired of that.”
According to information provided by Indigenous Services Canada, the Stoney Nakoda Fire Department received an average of $89,000 annually between 2010 and 2018. In comparison, the MD of Bighorn spent $301,000 on fire protection in 2017.
“First Nations Band Councils manage fire protection services on reserve and prioritize their spending to meet the needs of their communities, including a broad range of fire protection services,” wrote William Olscamp, a media relations officer for Indigenous Services Canada.
“This can include firefighting, operation and maintenance of fire halls, training, education and purchase of equipment such as fire trucks and funding to support mutual aid agreements with neighbouring communities.”
While more money would help, both Indigenous Services Canada and the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada are focusing their efforts on fire prevention.
“More money would help, but even more than that, what we would like to see is to make sure the money is used in a manner that is going to give them the biggest bang for their buck and for us we see fire prevention, that’s what’s going to save lives,” said Kent.
In 2016, the federal government introduced the Joint First Nations Fire Protection Strategy in partnership with the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada.
The goal of the five-year strategy is to support communities on reserve to reduce the risk of fire-related deaths and injuries through simple fire prevention programs, such as providing smoke alarms.
For example, Indigenous Service Canada said it has spent $3.7 million to purchase and install more than 128,000 smoke alarms in First Nation homes on reserves across the country.
“Education and fire prevention is literally what is going to save lives,” said Kent, adding one of the biggest issues is that provincial building codes and fire codes don’t apply to reserves.
“I don’t want to say First Nations aren’t following building or fire codes, a lot of them do, but we really need that to be enforced,” explained Kent, adding the federal government stopped enforcing building codes on reserves in 2010.
“Building and fire codes aren’t there to ensure a building lasts longer, it’s just there to ensure occupants can get out of a building safely in case of a fire.”
In 2017, the federal government promised to establish an Indigenous Fire Marshal’s Office to resume tracking the number of fire-related deaths on First Nation reserves after it stopped doing so in 2010.
According to a Toronto Star investigation published last year, 173 people died in fires in First Nation communities across Canada between 2015 and February 2017. For reserves in Alberta 21 people died during that same period.
“The Indigenous Fire Marshal’s Office will provide support to Indigenous communities in their efforts to improve safety and protection for people and property, as well as the development of fire services, programs and services,” wrote Martine Stevens, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada.
“In addition, an Indigenous Fire Marshal’s Office would develop and manage a national incident data collection system.”
Over the summer, the House Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs also made 11 recommendations to address significant gaps in the current approach to emergency management and fire safety for First Nation communities.
These gaps included ill-defined roles and responsibilities for First Nation emergency management, inadequate funding for preparedness activities, exclusion of First Nations from coordination activities and failure to consider their expertise and culture when responding to emergency events and emergency planning.
It also restated its full support to create an independent Indigenous Fire Marshall’s Office by April 2019.
Kent said it was very concerning to learn that nobody was collecting data about fire incidents on First Nation reserves, but he remained optimistic the new independent office will help improve fire protection on reserves when it is fully up and running.
“We don’t have that data and we need it,” said Kent.
Once the office is established, he said it will begin gathering data on all incidents, so it has a better picture of the current situation.
“Anytime a fire truck rolls, we want to gather that data, whether it’s saving someone who has fallen through the ice, or doing a vehicle extraction, or attending a fire, we want all the data gathered, collected and put into a database that we can share with our partners across Canada.”
With the creation of the fire office and better fire prevention programs, he said he was optimistic that First Nation communities across the country, such as Stoney Nakoda First Nation, would soon be able to go to sleep at night with the assurance they are adequately protected.
It’s looking a lot brighter for our First Nations communities,” said Kent. “Once this office is up and running they’ll see the benefits to not only fire departments, but to elected officials and communities as a whole.”