WINNIPEG – Baby Errabella Harper was fast asleep in a three-bedroom house with no running water on St. Theresa Point First Nation when fire broke out.
While the blaze ripped through the house, the community’s fire truck sat, broken, in a garage, and with no fire hoses. No one knew where the keys were anyway.
Four older children escaped into the frigid January morning in 2011 and another toddler was rescued, but Errabella, who was only 2 1/2 months old, died.
A few weeks later, fire broke out at the home of Daphne Benjoe on the Roseau River First Nation.
Firefighters had no water to battle the blaze since the fire hydrants in the community were frozen, not having had their annual maintenance the previous year.
Benjoe’s 16-year-old daughter, Alandise Benjoe-Larocque, was rescued, but had burns covering 80 per cent of her body. Benjoe didn’t survive.
Two months later, fire killed 73-year-old Demus James and his grandchildren: Throne Kirkness, 2, and three-year-old Kayleigh Okemow in God’s Lake Narrows.
The community didn’t have a fire truck and tried to battle the flames with two water trucks. People scrambled to find a monkey wrench to open a nearby fire hydrant, but it was too late.
Statistics show that residents of Manitoba First Nations are far more likely to die in house fires than people living off reserve because of outdated and overcrowded housing, poor fire prevention education and an often total inability to respond when fires break out.
Although fires on reserves make up less than five per cent of all fires in Manitoba, they account for up to half the fatalities.
Statistics from the Office of the Fire Commissioner show a person who is in a house fire in Winnipeg is more likely to escape with injuries. Someone in a similar fire on a reserve is more likely to die.
“It shouldn’t be like this,” said Beverly Trout, guardian of three-year-old Kayleigh, who died along with Trout’s father and nephew in God’s Lake Narrows.
“My prayer is this does not happen to anybody else again because it is so painful.”
A 2012 report done by Manitoba fire commissioner’s office and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs sheds stark light on the inadequacies of fire protection on reserves.
The study obtained by The Canadian Press found that five reserves with a combined population of 13,000 budgeted roughly $18 per capita for fire services, but five municipalities of the same size budgeted about $51.
Of 61 Manitoba reserves surveyed for the report, 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. Roughly half the communities couldn’t say how much of their budget was allocated to fire protection.
Many of the communities “lack the infrastructure, staffing and training to reliably respond to fires quickly and effectively,” the report said. Very few have any formal dispatch system to trigger a rapid response and even fewer have any kind of fire prevention or public education program, the survey found.
“As the incidence of fires in First Nation communities is significantly higher than in non-First Nation communities, and the capacity for responding to fires is generally lower, it is very concerning how few of these communities have fire prevention programs in place,” the report says.
Some say little has changed since the report was issued.
“It’s just another report,” said Ivan Hart, fire safety officer for Keewatin Tribal Council, which represents 10 aboriginal communities including God’s Lake Narrows. “It’s still sitting on a shelf.
“I’m just hoping and praying we don’t have another God’s Lake Narrows incident. That’s my fear.”
God’s Lake Narrows didn’t have a fire truck, fire hall or any equipment in 2011 when fire killed James and his two grandchildren.
The family’s home was riddled with fire hazards. It was heated by outdated space heaters, some of which didn’t have covers over the hot coils.
“I was worried about the house,” Trout testified in August 2013 at an inquest into the deaths. “Sometimes we would find stuff close to the heaters. We usually got them in time.”
Sometimes, Trout said, the family would turn the oven on and leave the door open for heat. There were no smoke detectors in the house and no fire extinguishers.
Now, the community of about 2,500 has a fire chief, James Watt, along with a fire truck and some equipment.
But the inquest heard there are still problems in the remote, fly-in community.
Watt testified how it can be hard to reach the community’s firefighters when there is a blaze because no one knows where the department’s three radios are. A call-out to volunteers is sent over the community radio station, but it shuts down at 8 p.m., he said.
He testified that volunteers — who have taken a two-day crash course on firefighting — take turns wearing the one fire suit that fits properly.
And without a permanent fire hall, the fire truck could be parked anywhere.
During one fire, Watt testified the truck was parked outside the RCMP detachment, but no one knew where the key was.
“I couldn’t locate where the key was until the house was already down,” he said in August 2013.
During another fire, the truck was parked inside a locked garage and Watt couldn’t find a key to get inside.
“We used bolt-cutters just to get in,” he said. “The house was not worth saving then.”
Watt himself is a volunteer and works full-time as a band constable. Doing fire prevention education would mean taking at least one day off work, so it doesn’t happen, he said.
At St. Theresa Point First Nation, fire chief Chris Knott is trying to re-establish a firefighting service on a budget of $70,000. That cash is expected to cover equipment, a fire truck, training and Knott’s salary, he testified at an inquest in March into Errabella’s death.
Fires on the remote fly-in reserve of about 2,600 people are frequent. Between March and November of last year, the reserve had 14 house fires and 106 fires in total, Knott said. One of those fires destroyed the RCMP office. The fire hall burned to the ground in 2009.
Getting around the northern reserve is challenging since some homes are barely accessible by road, especially in the winter, Knott testified.
“So, if there is a house fire five miles away, and it takes you 15 to 20 minutes to get there, what are you looking at when you finally arrive?” Crown attorney Nicole Roch asked him.
“Tragedy,” Knott replied.
Errabella’s grandmother, Leslie Harper, knows that tragedy. It was her home in St. Theresa Point that burned down, killing the baby.
The fire started in the chimney, spreading through the house, while Harper was away helping her elderly parents nearby. There was no running water in her home, let alone a smoke detector.
Rescuers cut a hole in the side of the building with a chainsaw to reach Errabella in the bedroom she shared with her toddler sister and mother, but she died of smoke inhalation.
“She was only a month old when she started smiling and laughing,” Harper remembered at the inquest. “She was happy those two months. She was the most happy baby. She didn’t sleep that much.
“It was like she knew she was going to go.”
The Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada declined to provide anyone to talk about fires on reserves. The department says a working was formed after the 2012 joint report analyzing the state of fire protection on Manitoba reserves.
In an emailed statement, the department said it provides $26 million a year in funding for firefighting on reserves across Canada, but it’s up to individual communities to prioritize their spending.
“We provide considerable funding to First Nations to support operations and maintenance, fire protection infrastructure and fire protection training on reserve — through which First Nations manage fire protection services on reserve to meet the needs of their communities,” the statement said.