From The Vault: Larger catastrophe barked back as Francis fire destroys two homes

[This story was originally published in the May 21, 2015 edition of the Quad Town Forum.]

Man’s best friend is being credited with preventing a local disaster from ending up any worse, after a fire completely destroyed two homes in Francis last week.

The fire, which started in a trailer at 107 Francis Street, was reported to the town’s volunteer fire department around 3:54 a.m. on May 12.

Many residents knew something was wrong before that though, as two dogs at the other home were said to have been howling loudly at the first sign of trouble next door.

“They should get some kind of dog reward … there’s no doubt they saved some lives,” said Francis mayor and volunteer fire fighter Reg Helfrick.

Both Helfrick and fire chief Cliff Knoll confirmed reports that the blaze started in the trailer then spread to the home to the south at 105 Francis Street, destroying it along with a large garage.

The house to the north of the trailer, at 109 Francis Street, suffered extensive smoke damage as well. All residents of the three homes, however, were able to escape unharmed.

Other media reports have stated that the fire began with an electrical malfunction in the trailer.

“The loss of property is one thing, and it’s significant, but there was no loss of human life and that’s what everybody was thankful for,” said Helfrick.

Helfrick, who lives one block from where the fire started, said when he arrived at the scene, it was already a “wall of fire.”

Calls for assistance were soon placed to neighbouring volunteer fire departments, and trucks from Sedley, Odessa and the R.M. of Francis. were all on scene by approximately 4:30 a.m. Several local farmers brought large portable water tanks to the scene, and Helfrick added that the ambulance and RCMP from Fillmore both attended the scene as well.

At the fire’s apex, Helfrick said there were 12 to 15 hoses fighting the fire at once.

The fire presented its share of challenges, as Helfrick noted that firefighters had to contend with downed power lines, a ruptured gas line — that one of the firefighters was eventually able to disconnect — and a truck that was “engulfed” in flames.

“Then we also knew from one of the homeowners that there were a couple propane tanks in his big shop out back so that was always in the back of our minds too,” added Knoll.

Several local residents worked to keep the fire crews fed until everyone was released from the scene around 8:30 a.m., and

Helfrick said more water was poured on the site around 8:30 that evening to douse any hot spots.

“In the spur of the moment I was pretty proud of all our guys and … I tried to talk to every one of them from all the volunteer fire departments, all the guys that I could, to say thanks for assisting us,” said Helfrick.

Within hours of the fire, a Facebook page had been set up to assist with fundraising for those who were displaced from or lost their homes, but plans were still in the preliminary stages as of Tuesday afternoon.

Over $3,000 had already been raised through individual donations though, through a trio of GoFundMe pages for the affected residents.

VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENTS WORKING HARD TO MEET LOCAL DEMAND

If your house started on fire, what would happen?

The answer depends largely on where you live.

If you were in the city, you could count on a fully-trained army of firefighters — whose entire livelihood revolves around saving homes and lives (and the occasional cat in a tree) — arriving at your door within minutes.

Outside of city limits, most fire departments are run strictly on a volunteer basis and the variables can add up quickly.

Do most of the members reside in town or out of town?

How close to town do they work during the day?

How many members does the department have in the first place?

Do they receive funding from their local municipality?

What kind of training, equipment and maintenance does their annual budget provide for?

These are all factors that will differ from town to town, and R.M. to R.M.

But overall, the state of the union is good, says Odessa Volunteer Fire Department chairman Darren Kress.

“We have a very active department with lots of members (24 according to the village’s website) and lots of guys that have been there a long time,” he said.

Kress estimated an average response time to a hypothetical fire in Odessa at under 10 minutes, and said the department was able to get six members, along with fire trucks from the village and the R.M. of Francis, to last week’s fire in the town of Francis within half an hour of being dispatched.

“It’s still all volunteer in the end so no one’s forced to do anything … but we’ve been fortunate to receive funding from Enbridge and a few other organizations that keeps us fairly well prepared,” he said, pointing specifically to LifePak AED’s and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) training for Odessa’s members that can assist in rescuing individuals from a burning home.

The Village of Sedley has also made fire safety a priority, ensuring each of its fire department members have basic fire training, the ability to enter a burning building with an SCBA, and the know-how to drive the fire truck.

In 2012, the department was able to purchase a new-to-them fire truck and also received its first annual grant of $7,000 from the village.

In addition, fire department meetings are held every month, every hydrant in town is tested twice a year, and the department recently purchased brand new turnout gear for its members as well.

“As the mayor, I’m pretty proud of our fire department because … a few years ago we were not in that state,” said Sedley mayor Bryan Leier. “I think of the safety of our residents and that means water safety, fire safety and road traffic safety, and that’s all very high on our agenda.

“So we needed to do something with the fire department to make sure that it had adequate training and the tools it needed in case anything happened.”

And even with those upgrades, the best fire protection remains planning ahead.

Among other things, SGI Canada recommends preparing a fire escape plan for you and your family, practicing your fire escape plan regularly, installing and regularly testing your smoke alarms, and routinely inspecting your home for potential hazards, like overloaded electrical circuits or combustible items being stored near heat sources.

“The bottom line to remember is that these are all still volunteer fire departments,” said Leier.