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Fatal Saskatchewan reserve fire highlights lack of firefighting resources

A house burns in Pelican Narrows, Sask. Two boys, age nine and 10, were killed in the fire, and a 10-year-old girl was rescued.


An emergency official says efforts to fight a deadly fire on a northeastern Saskatchewan reserve were hampered because a fire truck wouldn't start.

The fire tore through a home in the community of Pelican Narrows on Saturday, killing two boys, who were nine and 10. A 10-year-old girl who was pulled from the burning home is being treated in a Winnipeg hospital for severe burns.

Richard Kent, commissioner of emergency and protective services with the Prince Albert Grand Council, says the volunteer fire chief went to the firehall.

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"The pump was working. It's just that the fire truck wouldn't start and if the fire truck doesn't start, you have nothing," Mr. Kent said Wednesday.

"In these small communities, they don't have a whole lot of money and they don't have a backup unit … It's not [that] the firefighters didn't show up. It's that they couldn't get the fire truck going and they couldn't get it to the fire."

Mr. Kent said it's up to the community to make sure the equipment works, but he also said regular maintenance can't be done without funding from the federal government.

Many volunteer firefighters also work outside the community so they can't check on equipment every day, he said.

Mr. Kent suggested there's not enough money for First Nations fire departments to make them viable.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt's office said in an e-mail that the government invests $120,000 to the Prince Albert Grand Council for fire protection training for its member First Nations, including Pelican Narrows.

It also said the government provides $200,000 annually to train on-reserve volunteer firefighters. In the case of Pelican Narrows, Ottawa also provided direct funding for "fire protection capital."

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A man who rescued the 10-year-old girl says no one responded to the blaze. Larry Custer told radio station CKOM there were no firefighting volunteers to help him pull Hope Ballantyne from the flaming home.

Mr. Custer said nobody has signed up because residents don't see the benefit of risking their lives to fight fires because they aren't getting paid.

"The people don't want to really get into it," Mr. Custer told the station. "We've got a fire truck and a lot more people need training."

Mr. Custer identified the dead boys as Josiah and Solomon Ballantyne.

Chief Peter Beatty of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation said Tuesday that equipment on the reserve is dated and firefighters are unable to deal with structural blazes.

Mr. Beatty said he's been hounding Aboriginal Affairs for years for better resources. He said officials have responded by saying the community would need to front 50 per cent of the cost for a new fire station.

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Saskatchewan's children's advocate said First Nations fire response must be addressed.

"Children have a right to be safe in their homes," Bob Pringle said in a statement.

He said the blaze may have been started accidentally by the children and fire-safety education may be needed as well.

It's not the first time firefighting capacity on remote reserves has been in question.

In 2011, residents of the St. Theresa Point First Nation in Manitoba were forced to use snow to put out a fire that killed a two-month-old girl. Reports at that time said the community's fire truck was broken down, didn't have any hoses and no one knew where the keys were.

Later that year, two children and an elder died in a fire on the Gods Lake Narrows First Nation, also in Manitoba. The chief said 200 people showed up to help, but the community didn't have a fire truck and had to rely on two water trucks to fight the flames.

Mr. Kent says First Nations firefighting is also problematic because building and fire codes don't apply to structures on reserve.

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