SHAWANAGA FIRST NATION – A forest fire on Shawanaga First Nation that forced residents’ evacuation Tuesday highlights the community’s need for a new water system, according to a press release.
Fire highlights water shortage in Shawanaga.
The blaze that engulfed a Shawanaga home and ignited the 1.5-hectare brush fire Tuesday.
Bill Homer photo
A mid-morning house fire quickly set 1.5-hectares of bush ablaze amid tinder dry conditions. This month, there’s been a mere smidgen of the usual 80 mm of July rainfall.
Shawanaga firefighters, along with those from Wasauksing First Nation, and Carling Township, and the Pointe Au Baril Emergency Response Team were joined in their effort by two Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) water bombers and three MNR fire crews to contain the fire.
“Our community was required to call in the support of the MNR and local fire departments to assist with fire suppression because the community water treatment and fire storage facilities do not meet federal or provincial standards,” according to Shawanaga press release issued Wednesday afternoon.
The village and area residents were evacuated to Wasauksing First Nation. Shawanaga residents were allowed to return Wednesday with the stipulation they remain “on high alert” in case the fire flared up.
About 24 hours after the fire began the MNR said it was under control, but its firefighters would remain on scene for up to 48 more hours. In total, 12 MNR firefighters remained Wednesday afternoon.
The Ontario Fire Marshall was on scene assessing the cause of the blaze.
Shawanaga does have a public water system that includes water hydrants in the village, but not in the outskirts were the fire started. The Shawanaga Fire Department has 10 volunteers who all respond to calls for service when able.
In 2006 the First Nation applied to the government to upgrade its water system, which would increase the reservoir and fire hydrant coverage.
That year though, a road was built to a nearby community that, two years later, decimated the two wells that supplied up to 30 gallons per minute down to as little as half-a-gallon per minute, said Shawanaga head councillor Adam Pawis.
“It was that time that the (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development) pulled the plans on the upgrade because there wasn’t enough water to supply the upgrade,” said Pawis. “So, we’ve been in this great debate whether or not we get this water surface treatment plant either on Shawanaga River or Georgian Bay, one or the other. And, the plan, in general, is to build a water surface treatment plant because we’ve drilled 10 wells in the area trying to find more water for the community water supply and all those wells we’ve drilled have come up dry.”
He pointed out that while area communities were mandated by the province to upgrade water systems after the deadly 2000 e-coli outbreak in Walkerton, Shawanaga never got the upgraded system it wanted.
“We are currently one of the only First Nation communities in Ontario that doesn’t have a new or updated water treatment plant,” said Pawis. “So, we’ve been working on this project and had things happened how they were supposed to happen back in 2006 we could have had better capacity in order to fight the emergency that happened yesterday.”
To fight the fire Tuesday, the Pointe Au Baril volunteers were at the Shawanaga River filling up First Nation, municipal and MNR tankers and water trucks of Week’s Construction and Adams Bros. that then shuttled the water back to the fire for firefighters to spay on the flames. It’s a system rural West Parry Sound area municipalities without access to hydrants use.
“The ground support that came out of the woodwork was absolutely fantastic, I cannot say how appreciative we are to (everyone),” said Pawis. “Having said that, we would have been in a better situation to suppress the fire ourselves if we had the proper infrastructure.”
With 10 volunteers who respond when available, the First Nation works to man the fire department, “the best as we can” said Pawis.
He pointed out that the volunteers are sometimes too far away working to make it to calls.
“We do have a tanker and the guys do routinely practice picking up water at various locations – there are four or five ponds. It is part of their regular team practices; to go to the landing to pick up water, go to the river to pick up water, that’s part of their practice. But, having said that, once again, you have two trucks and five guys and it’s very difficult – we’re so understaffed, undermanned and under funded…it’s not that we don’t have the capability, some days our capacity just isn’t there.”
When the fire first started, Shawanaga staff members and former fire department volunteers arrived to help the best they could, said Pawis.
“To make matters worse,” according to the press release. “The well which was to supply the truck water was damaged by the fire.”
“It is incomprehensible how a community in central Ontario, surrounded by water and bisected by a major highway can be without adequate water supply,” said Chief Mike Pawis in the release.