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Liability issues at play when responding to fires

A Saskatchewan fire chief is defending Loon Lake firefighters in not responding to a house fire; FSIN calls for more firefighting money.
A Saskatchewan fire chief is defending Loon Lake firefighters in not responding to a house fire; FSIN calls for more firefighting money. Courtesy Newcap Television

While volunteer firefighters in Loon Lake, Sask. withstand harsh criticism for not responding to a fatal house fire, others are coming to their defence. According to one fire chief, it is matter of liability.

Early Tuesday morning, an 18-month-old girl and her two-year-old brother died in a house fire on the Makwa Sachaeihcan First Nation. The nearby volunteer fire department in Loon Lake did not respond, saying the First Nation was in arrears of payments and the contract had been cancelled.

According to Albert Headrick, the chief of the North Battleford Fire Department, the Loon Lake Fire Department acted appropriately considering there is no contract with the First Nation.

“If a firefighter responded from another jurisdiction to that area and got hurt, basically he’d probably be on his own,” said Headrick.

“If they respond and put out the fire and they leave the area, and the fire rekindles or restarts because they never got all the hotspots out, they could be liable.”

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Documents released by the village show a two-and-a-half year struggle with the First Nation over firefighting fees before the band was cut off of from any services on Jan. 30. (Documents have been embedded at the end of this story.)

READ MORE: Firefighting cut to Saskatchewan reserve due to unpaid bills

At the time, village officials say the band owed them $3,300. The band use to have a contract with an annual fee of $5,000 plus costs for each fire the department attended.

That was renegotiated to a fee-per-fire cost including $400 an hour for use of a fire truck, $300 an hour for a water truck and $25 an hour per firefighter.

The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) says the federal government bears responsibility for the tragedy. FSIN is accusing the government of not providing enough funding for any First Nation to cover the cost of even two fires a year.

“Unless there is a significant increase in funding, there is no way First Nations can meet any kind of fire safety codes and regulations,” said FSIN vice-chief Dutch Lerat.

“The federal government has to meet with First Nations immediately to begin finding solutions rather than unilaterally imposing legislation.

“We don’t want to see any more lives lost.”

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READ MORE: Sask. reserve where blaze killed 2 children had cancelled firefighting service

Assembly of First Nation Chief Perry Bellegarde is calling for a full investigation into the deadly fire and action to ensure another tragedy doesn’t happen.

“We can all agree that no community should be without proper fire protection and services,” said Bellegarde.

The federal government says the First Nation was given just over $11,000 for fire protection in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 fiscal years.

Watch below: MPs Niki Ashton and Romeo Saganash took aim Thursday at the Conservative government’s alleged lack of treatment towards First Nations communities after two toddlers died in a fire Tuesday.

An email from the office of Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said the reserve got $40,000 for fire services this year. It also said records show the reserve has its own fire hall and truck.

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The lack of response has led to charges against one man. Tony Mitsuing, 27, is charged with utter threats on social media against the Loon Lake fire chief.

He has been released from custody until his next court appearance on March 26 on conditions including not contacting the fire chief.

With files from Wendy Winiewski and The Canadian Press