As the head of the territorial fire chiefs’ association, Jim Sawkins has seen and heard about all kinds of emergencies, from car crashes to blazing houses and everything in between.
Sawkins is also the fire chief for Inuvik, which acts as hub for the Beaufort Delta region. In his multifaceted roles, he has started noticing common issues faced by fire departments from Enterprise to his community in the High Arctic.
For one thing, abandoned buildings are a magnet for fires, sometimes housing rambunctious youth and transient populations.
“Those buildings become targets for some of our fire setters and keeps us very busy,” Sawkins said. “It’s hazardous because when I or any fire chief arrives on scene they have to make the determination as to whether or not they’re going to send their crew in. The actual fact is if the conditions are still O.K. inside the building we will (go in) because we don’t know, we can’t guarantee, that they’re empty.”
Two recent fires were set the last couple of weeks at abandoned buildings at Kugmallit Rd., Sawkins said.
“Once again, if the owner doesn’t take corrective action then the town has to, and in order for the town to do that, that’s a major expenditure,” he said. “There has to be some form of funding avenue available through the federal or territorial government so that we can correct these shortcomings.”
NWT fire marshal Chucker Dewar said one of the biggest issues on his radar is fires caused by improperly discarded cigarettes and ashes from wood stoves.
“Most people are smoking outside now because that’s just kind of the way we’re evolving. Smoking is no longer allowed indoors,” Dewar said. “We’ve seen a lot of peat moss fires from plants that people have on their decks, (where) cigarettes go in and the moss lights on fire.”
The biggest challenge facing firefighters in the North might not be the emergencies they attend to, but their resources – or rather, the lack thereof.
According to Sawkins, one of the biggest problems that fire departments encounter time and time again is aging resources, coupled with transient or understaffed crews.
“The fact is that as much as the community fire chiefs try to raise concern and awareness with regards to the need for equipment, it always seems that the fire department is sort of put on the backburner when it comes to funding,” Sawkins said. “It’s commonplace right across the country.”
He believes the lack of funding received for new supplies comes down to a lack of knowledge about how much work fire departments do.
“If you were in the public works department, your council members drive around town, they actually hit a pothole, public works comes out and fills that pothole and they can see their money being spent,” Sawkins said. “We’re basically the Maytag repairman; we sit and wait for something to break or until the fire hits.”
And while some stations remain less active than others, their equipment still ages at the same rate.
“If you don’t have a lot of fire, then that 20 year-old truck still looks pretty good inside that fire station,” Sawkins said. “In actual fact, insurance-wise, it’s at a tenth of its life expectancy at 20 years, no matter how pretty it looks.”