As the weather warms, plans are being made to get out on the land. But whether you’re deep in the bush or in your community, the best way to ensure fire safety is to practice prevention.
“Ten years ago, fire departments were mostly waiting for fires to happen,” said George Cox, regional fire prevention officer. “We met with insurance last year and they told us the year before was the lowest cost of fires they had seen, so we’re really starting to see results for the education of fire prevention.”
Cox is helping establish a fire-prevention program in all communities. He analyzes the primary causes of fires, conducts annual house visits and leads education campaigns. A recent study found that leading causes are children playing with matches or lighters, grease from cooking accidents, and faulty wiring systems.
“Have an evacuation plan for your family because a lot of children don’t know what to do,” Cox advised. “Tell them what to do so they don’t hide within the home. At the school, they have to have a fire drill every year.”
As half of all fire deaths occur when people are asleep, ensuring smoke alarms are operational is essential. The alarms may have photoelectric or ionization sensors – the former detects smoke while the latter detects flames.
A smoke detector could have prevented the tragic cabin fire at Bussy Lake in 2015 that claimed five lives, according to the coroner’s report. That incident motivated the creation of a Fire Prevention Plan pamphlet specifically intended for cabins in Eeyou Istchee.
“We started this pamphlet back in April 2016, a year after the fire with the five great hunters,” recalled Jimmy Iserhoff, regional program officer of forestry. The Forestry Program Prioritization Committee met with Regional Fire Marshal Lee-Roy Blacksmith, Iserhoff added, to gather information on how to prevent cabin fires.
The pamphlet includes recommendations for wood-stove safety, quick exits in case of emergency, and instructions for operating a fire extinguisher. Dry chemical extinguishers should regularly be turned over and shaken to prevent blockages and not left in the cold for a long time.
As batteries don’t operate well in frigid temperatures, smoke detectors have been known to go off when homes are too cold. Smoke detectors funded by the CNG and the Mistissini Band Council have different sounds for smoke and carbon monoxide. Separate smoke detectors should be installed on the ceiling in each room.
To detect propane, a carbon monoxide detector should be installed six inches from the floor as the gas doesn’t rise.
“In the hunting season, the most common problem is the use of fast-heating stoves,” Iserhoff noted. “For the main living area, use home-approved stoves that are slow burning. Some will use an airtight heater by the stove, fitted with cement blocks [underneath]. Many others use their teepees. Some camps have cooking areas. I think it is more dangerous to cook inside the cabin.”
There should be a 36-inch space between the stove, the ceiling and walls. The area immediately around the stove should also be clear of clutter – including wet clothes hung to dry too closely. Chimney cleaning, meanwhile, should never be neglected.
Iserhoff stressed the need to keep a clear path out of the building. The committee also recommends building a second exit, though a window that opens outward can be an acceptable alternative. Many cabins in the wilderness currently protect their windows from intruders with steel mesh, which is a fire trap.
As well, hazardous materials, including butane bottles, gas and oil should be stored in a safe area away from the main cabin.
When the weather heats up, a simple but effective method of keeping water nearby for extinguishing fires is to place an open 45-gallon tub just below the roof edge to fill up with rain.
While the forestry department has GPS points for almost all cabins, rescue missions in remote locations are difficult for firefighters so it’s important to take every possible safety precaution.
Finally, Iserhoff echoed Blacksmith’s words after the Bussy Lake fire in 2015.
“Do not stop going out on the land,” he said. “It is our source of survival. It helps us mentally, physically and emotionally.”