Reporting fire doesn’t result in liability for costs

Members of the public are urged to report fires if they see them.  |  File photo

Hazel Morris wants to dispel a myth.

The Neudorf, Sask., area resident is miffed that a couple of large fires on her pastureland last year could have been contained sooner had people called 911.

Morris claims that the fires were made worse because people didn’t call the emergency number for fear of being held financially liable for firefighting costs.

“I think I was the last person who knew the land was on fire. Lots of people were there and it took quite awhile before anybody called into the fire department to say that the place was on fire,” she said.

“Subsequently I asked a couple people why they didn’t call. ‘Well, we didn’t want to call because we would have been charged with firefighting.’ … Well that to me is patently ridiculous.”

Morris said she was billed and paid $4,800 for the first fire.

The bill for the second fire was more than $30,000 but was split between several parties. It started on Morris’s land, but eventually spread to other property owners.

“According to my RM, they are entitled to bill the owner of the land if they have to take the fire department onto it to fight a fire, which is quite contrary to what the general myth is that if you see a fire starting up, you better pretend that you’re going in the other direction,” she said.

Jason Ulmer, chief of the volunteer Neudorf Fire Department, agreed that the public is sometimes reluctant to report fires and re-mains perplexed why it took several hours for locals to report the one on Morris’s land.

“None of the neighbours wanted to phone it in because I think they’re bickering back and forth and they thought somebody would be liable,” he said.

“Had they phoned 911, we probably could have extinguished it that night rather than five days later. It took a helicopter and water bomber to put it out plus four other fire departments. It was a long week.”

Ulmer said it was a difficult and frustrating experience for his department.

“We had it contained about three times, but it kept coming back.”

The fire not only cost landowners a sizeable sum of money but also took a toll on Ulmer and his crew of volunteers.

“We’re just volunteers and it cost us a week,” he said.

“Most guys and myself basically only had seven or eight hours of sleep that whole week.”

Cellphones have made it much easier to communicate, but Mike Given of the Delisle and District Fire and Rescue said many people still choose not to phone 911 when they see fire and smoke.

“A lot of people don’t want to be involved, so they won’t make any calls. They’ll drive right by whatever the situation is, be it a grass fire, house fire,” said the fire chief.

“They’ll drive by and think somebody else has already made that call so they don’t have to.”

His message is simple.

“If you see something that looks like it’s a fire or an accident, don’t be afraid to call in. There’s no charge to the caller at all.”

He said similar to the Crime Stoppers program, people reporting fires are not held responsible and do not have to appear in court.

“If you call in for a fire, you’re just reporting. That’s a good Samaritan act,” he said.

“You can tell the person who takes the call that you’re not going to be there when help arrives.”

Given said 911 dispatchers will quickly try to get as much information from the caller, such as a land description and what they saw. If the caller does not know the legal land description, dispatchers will ask for physical landmarks such as trees, crossroads and the nearest community.

Given said acreage owners and farmers should memorize their four-digit legal land description and write it down by their phone.

Gone are the day where most people can locate the cardinal points of north, south, east and west, he added.

“The younger (generation) generally don’t have a good grasp of the four directions. They’ll name places and turn right or left,” he said.

“I think a lot of people are technologically handcuffed. If it’s not on their phone, they kind of don’t know what it is. They just look at their phone and it tells them where to go.”

Given said winter is a busy time of year for farmers and rural residents obtaining fire permits.

Burning bales, brush or old lumber requires a permit from the provincial fire commission, which is usually given over the phone.

The fire commission wants to know name, land location and what is being burned. The nearest fire department is notified ahead of the burn.

“So if it does happen to get out of control, then they know beforehand where they’re going to be heading to,” he said.

Given said burning without a permit comes with a $1,500 fine and if it’s something environmentally unfriendly, the property owner will also receive an extra charge for the fire truck showing up.

He also cautions property owners to keep a close eye on the fire be-cause embers can travel up to two kilometres before they go out.

“So you could be starting your neighbour’s grass on fire and not even know it.”

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