Fatal fires under probe

Fatal fires under probe
By Michael-Allan Marion
Brandford Expositor
Link to article: Fatal fires under probe

Six Nations fire Chief Matthew Miller (The Canadian Press)

Six Nations fire Chief Matthew Miller says he hopes a provincial investigation into a series of fatal fires in Indigenous communities will get First Nations urgently needed resources.

"We can only hope it will lead to more resources being given to help us for fire protection to stem the number of deaths in burning homes on our territory and other First Nations," Miller said in an interview Thursday.

He was reacting to an announcement that Ontario's chief coroner, Dr. Dirk Huyer, has set up a panel of experts to look at dozens of residential fires in Indigenous communities. Those fires have killed nearly 60 people in a little more than a decade.

The panel will include coroners, forensic pathologists, fire investigators and members of Indigenous communities.

"I believe the panel has the ability to assist us to getting First Nation fire protection to adequate levels," said Miller.

At 12:50 p.m. on Dec. 8, 2017, a three-year-old boy perished in a house fire on Six Nations. Firefighters fought their way inside and found the child. He was rushed to West Haldimand Hospital in Hagersville, but was pronounced dead a short time after arriving.

"I cannot adequately put into words the impact that this tragic fire had on our community," said Miller, who was treated at hospital for smoke inhalation as a result of that fire.

"We have had numerous close calls in recent years with successful rescues, but unfortunately we cannot save everyone."

Miller, who is president of the Ontario Native Firefighters Society and a director on the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada, has regularly raised his concerns with provincial and federal cabinet ministers.

"The statistics are there," he said.

"Fires on First Nations have killed nearly 60 people in a little more than a decade. There have been 18 First Nations fire deaths in Ontario in the past 24 months. You're 10.4 times more likely to die in a house fire on a First Nation than anywhere else in Canada.

"Due to the size and population found in the Six Nations community the statistics are easily seen as they are amplified because of our size. The Six Nations fire and emergency services currently responds to approximately 24 to 30 structure fires per year in the Six Nations community."

Huyer's fact-finding mission follows repeated requests for a coroner's inquest into fire safety from the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents nearly 50 nations in northern Ontario.

He said authorities know there is a disproportionate number of fire deaths in Indigenous communities relative to non-Indigenous ones.

"We really want to understand what we can do about it," he said in an interview with Postmedia.

Unlike an inquest, the chief coroner's panel, or table, will not necessarily produce a report or make formal recommendations, Huyer said. But the table can be launched more quickly, and will have more leeway to investigate the broad issue of fires in Indigenous communities, he added.

"This table is really drilling down deeply into each of the deaths"¦to look for systemic issues, trends or patterns."

The panel has until February 2019 to complete its work.

Miller said the panel is all the more important because of gaps in information about fires on First Nations.

"The federal government doesn't know the current exact death toll of First Nation fires across Canada because it stopped keeping track of on-reserve fire fatalities statistics in 2010," he said.

"Without adequate fire protection funding we will lose more of our people to fire like we did when that child tragically perished."

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