BY LINDSAY BRISCOE
Five Community Fire Officers (CFOs) from neighbouring First Nations were recently in the area for a ten-day training session as northwestern Ontario gears up for the fire season ahead.
They all have different levels of experience. One of the CFOs, George Kakegumic, is the freshest of the five.
“I just started. This is my first season,” Kakegumic said in an interview. “I used to work in an office for 20 years in Keewaywin and at my age – getting up there – I wanted to do something physical to keep myself in shape.”
Seymour Owen of Poplar Hill, on the other hand, has been in the field for 15 years. He got into it because of an ad he’d heard on the radio. When he heard it again two weeks later, he decided to call about it and got work right away.
No matter their level of experience, CFOs are crucial to fire fighting in northwestern Ontario and a big part of local fire operations.
“The CFOs are the connection for us to the band,” explains local Fire Management Technician, Kent Fraser. “They’re our community liaison. If our crew lands at the airport, we need to have accommodation, trucks, etc. They organize all that. They work out the logistics. The CFO becomes the go-to guy for people coming in. In the past we’ve had teams show up – like big in-command teams – and they’re basically working with the CFOs saying we need a water truck, we need a fire trucks, we need to rent vehicles, where’s the nursing station. We wouldn’t be able to work in the North if we didn’t have CFOs.”
Fraser also explains their local knowledge is key to understanding the threat of a fire. The CFOs know about values around their community and know what’s at risk if a fire starts getting too close. Part of their training involves learning how to read smoke columns so they can determine the direction of the fire.
For the most part the CFOs work alone while they patrol, but can turn to a roster of fire fighters within their communities if they need help suppressing a fire. If a fire gets really bad, they’ll call into Red Lake and additional local crews will assist.
Last year a dump fire in Pikangikum quickly spiraled out of control. CFO Keith Quill was on the scene.
“We saw smoke while me and my crew were just patrolling around. So we went to check it out,” explains Quill. “At first it was just burning in the dump so we decided not to bother (dump fires are one type of fire that don’t fall under MNR responsibility), then we came back down and drove around a little more and when we went back, that’s when hell almost broke loose. Me and my crew couldn’t handle it – just the four of us. So I called up here (Red Lake) and said I needed a crew to come and help me out. That’s when the Kaczmarek crew came by chopper.”
The Red Lake Fire Management Headquarters established this program with northern First Nations about 20 years ago. Recently, though local management has been working to strengthen the relationship with their northern partners.
“We really want to foster a team environment, but due to the fact that we’re so far away, it’s difficult,” says Fraser. “We do our best over the phone. The guys call in four times a day and then throughout the summer we’ll send crews up north to do training with the guys. There’s that back-and-forth partnership.
We also get the CFOs down. Last year they came down to Back Lake for a team-building weekend. The management staff here has a lot of commitment to them.”
The MNR works with CFOs in 26 remote First Nation communities across northern Ontario. Red Lake coordinates, in particular, with CFOs in Pikangikum, Poplar Hill, Keewaywin, Sandy Lake, Deer Lake, North Spirit Lake. They also work with Couchiching though the community doesn’t have a CFO.
What’s up in Red Lake at the moment
“We’re closer to snow free than it looks. I know we had a really long winter, but it’s been a very effective melt. There hasn’t been much run-off. We had so many windy days and that’s when the snow just evaporates,” says Fraser.
“Spring can have the most aggressive fire behaviour because there are no leaves on the trees and it’s all cured. Even the deciduous have no leaves on them and all your marshes are just cured grass. None of your fuel breaks exist anymore.”
The Red Lake Fire Management Headquarters is now in full orientation and training mode. There are currently 60 crew firefighters and 15 support staff on site in Red Lake.