Old equipment, aging buildings pose fire hazards to Nunavimmiut

New report warns of massive losses


KUUJJUAQ — Nunavik is at risk of suffering massive losses of property and life from fires, says a new fire safety plan for the territory.

The report — now in the hands of the Quebec government — evaluates the region’s ability to prevent and fight fires and makes recommendations for urgently-needed improvements.

Parents of young children in Kuujjuaq may be surprised to learn this report reveals the community’s new Petakallak Elementary School doesn’t have a sprinkler system.

That’s because in 2003 the Quebec building board, the Régie du batîment du Québec, exempted the school from the sprinkler system requirement, which applies to all public buildings in Quebec.

And this decision was made with no consultation with local or regional fire officials.

“Roughly 200 children under the age of eight are the daily users of a public building which has, as its only line of defence against possible fire, an alarm system,” says the 60-page Safety Cover Plan for Nunavik.

This is just one of the unsettling revelations contained in a report that paints a picture of Nunavik as a region with insufficient and aging infrastructure and equipment.

In 1999, $2.9 million from Quebec allowed the construction of several new fire stations and upgrades as well as the purchase of seven new fire trucks, but the report says new fire stations are still needed in Quaqtaq, Kangiqsujuaq, Kangirsuk, Inukjuak and Puvirnituq.

“Old and unfit” traditional water trucks also need to be replaced in Kuujjuaraapik, Puvirnituq, Inukjuak and Kangiqsualujjuaq.

But only Kuujjuaraapik, Inukjuak, Puvirnituq, Salluit, Kangirsuk, Kuujjuaq and Kangiqsualujjuaq have enough water readily available to fight fires.

And even in these communities, bad weather and the location of a fire can turn a fire into a disaster.

Generally, firefighters have to reach fires in less than 10 minutes to keep a blaze from spreading out of control.

But, in Nunavik, there’s also a lack of manpower, which prevents some firefighting brigades from responding effectively.

Many communities, particularly the smaller ones, have trouble maintaining the minimum number of firefighters per brigade. The minimum number of 10 required in a brigade stays the same no matter how large the community, and turnover affects the stability of each local department.

Training is also an issue, and, despite ongoing training courses, there are no fire chiefs in the region with Quebec certification.

All these shortfalls can be critical in firefighting, and in Nunavik there have been plenty of damaging fires.

From 2000-2004, more than 100 fires caused property losses of $26.9 million, averaging about $539 per person. The communities hardest hit include Kuujjuaraapik, which lost a school, residences and a power plant, Puvirnituq, whose cooperative store and municipal garage burned, Salluit, Quaqtaq, Kangirsuk and Kangiqsualujjuaq.

The plan says fuel tank farms, electrical plants, water distribution plants, communications facilities, community health clinics, and airports in Nunavik are “extremely high risk areas” which need more and better firefighting protection.

All decisions concerning protection are left to municipal officials, and that can be a problem, the report says, because fire safety is “just one area of priority for northern Quebec’s young municipalities.”

The KRG receives $700,000 a year from Quebec’s public security department, and spends $420,000 to coordinate regional fire prevention and activities and $250,000 into training annually, but less money is still spent per capita in Nunavik on prevention than in southern Quebec.

The idea of the “fire safety cover plan” is to try to reduce losses and make resources more efficient.

The plan estimates Quebec will need to spend another $4.5 million in order to bring Nunavik’s equipment and infrastructure up to par.

The plan makes 17 recommendations, calling for training, prevention, education and more money.

It suggests a switch to fire trucks that use a compressed air foam system, because this method requires only 10 per cent as much water. It also recommends that volunteer firefighters should be paid for at least 60 hours of work annually, and the KRG should provide uniforms for firefighters in every community.

The plan says there should be public safety officers in every community, as is already the case in Kuujjuaraapik and Kangirsuk.

“It is hoped that other Nunavik municipalities will follow the example.”

At the recent meeting of the Kativik Regional Government’s regional council, councilors learned funds from the Sanaruutik Agreement on social and economic development could be used to help pay for this position.

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