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Mishkeegogamang under distress following house fires

Wednesday March 19, 2014
Submitted by Ron Kyle

The ruins of a house fire in Mishkeegogamang from 2009. The community is still in crisis following a house fire last month that led to the deaths of four people.

Community members in Mishkeegogamang First Nation are still struggling to cope with a house fire that led to the death of a mother, her two young daughters and her nephew on Feb. 13.

Faced with overwhelming demand, chief and council declared a state of emergency on March 3, stating that the widespread trauma has been compounded by a persistent significant shortage of services and resources.

The state of emergency prompted Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Deputy Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler to call for a widespread mobilization of all available services as Mishkeegogamang deals with the tragedy.

“It has been just over two weeks since this terrible loss and the full extent of the devastating impacts have slowly grown into a crisis,” Fiddler said in March 4 press release.
“Chief, council and support workers are working at maximum capacity and require immediate assistance from all available agencies to help them deal with this tragedy.”

Fiddler said all available services were sent to support the community immediately after the fire, but leadership and front-line workers are “simply overwhelmed and require additional support and relief.”

Mishkeegogamang leadership, community workers, police officers, and mental health and crisis management personnel are operating at maximum capacity but fear the situation will worsen without an immediate injection of additional resources.

Chief Connie Gray-McKay has said there has also been an increase in substance abuse in the community and there have been more than 60 transfers of people to hospital by air ambulance in the last two months.

The community, which has an on-reserve population of close to 1,000 people, has been through 12 funerals since Christmas Eve.

Volunteer crisis teams from area communities assisted immediately after the fire, and ongoing efforts are being coordinated by NAN in cooperation with health providers and government agencies.

The situation led Gray-McKay to call for fire escape plans and inspections for each home.
Recently, another home caught on fire. A 10-year-old trailer that was home to a pair of families, and a total of seven people, burned to the ground in the early hours of March 13.

No one was injured and Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service officers are investigating the cause.

The community’s fire truck has also come under scrutiny after it was revealed that it was not equipped to handle northern climates. Kept in an unheated facility, firefighters cannot store water in the truck during the winter months, causing delays when an emergency arises (see story on Page B1).

Over the past three months, six homes have burned down, claiming the lives of 12 members of the community just south of Pickle Lake.

Although the community continues to be in crisis, the First Nation is appreciative of the help it has received.

“Chief and council are grateful for the assistance that has been provided so far but we are urging the federal and provincial governments to deploy all appropriate resources to ease the burden on front-line workers and help leadership stabilize the community,” said Fiddler. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of the victims and our hearts go out to the Mishkeegogamang community as they struggle to cope with this terrible loss.”

Like many remote First Nations, the majority of homes are substandard and rely on dangerous wood stoves for heat. The community has developed a program to improve the safety of wood stoves but lacks the resources to retrofit all homes. Twenty-six people have lost their lives in house fires in Mishkeegogamang since 1981.

Mishkeegogamang is located approximately 320 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay.

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