Mounting Fire Losses in Small Town Saskatchewan – What Can be Done?

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Please note: The purpose of this article is to provide information, foster discussion and to be thought provoking. The ideas expressed are my own opinions and perspectives.  This is not a scientific analysis, and no responsibility or blame is implied toward any person, entity, municipal or government official, or municipal or government office.   

History of inspections and code enforcement in Saskatchewan

When the National Fire and Building Codes were first adopted as regulations in Saskatchewan in the early 1980’s and up until the late 1990’s, inspectors from the Office of the Fire Commissioner (OFC) roamed the province conducting inspections and code enforcement in the many small towns and villages.  That service was phased out, mainly because the Office of the Fire Commissioner needed to direct its staffing resources to focus more on fire fighter training, fire investigations and emergency measures. 

The responsibility of applying and enforcing the Fire Code in small town Saskatchewan was then left to the municipalities and their fire chiefs.  During the transition and for many years later, the OFC offered fire inspector training and advisory services to all the fire departments so that fire code application and enforcement would continue to maintain fire and life safety throughout the province.

Inspections and Code Enforcement in Saskatchewan Today

Unfortunately today, some 23 years later, it has been my observation that inspections and fire code enforcement to existing buildings is virtually non-existent in many of Saskatchewan’s towns and villages.  The reasons for that are varied.

It is very apparent by the myriad of media reports that small towns are losing their hotels, rinks and downtown buildings to fire at a startling rate. One just has to conduct a simple search online to find numerous media reports showing the ongoing loss of these buildings in towns and villages.

The losses to these communities are devastating.  Can you imagine the disruption and impact to larger centres such as Swift Current, Moose Jaw and Regina if any one of them suddenly lost most, if not all their hotels or rinks at once?

It’s unimaginable, but for a small community that is the reality.  Apart from arson as a cause, I think many of these fires are preventable. I will even go so far as to say that I know many of these fires are preventable.

Tools are Available

The tools are there to take the measures needed to prevent, or at a minimum, limit the probability of these fires occurring. These tools just have to be utilized.  

Available tools are:

  • The National Fire Code: It contains provisions to accomplish the objectives of life safety, health, and the protection of buildings and facilities. Many of its technical provisions are designed to prevent, limit the probability, limit the severity, and slow the spread of fire.
  • Municipal Fire Bylaws: They can supplement the minimum provisions of the Fire Code to address specific local needs and conditions for fire prevention and life safety.
  • The Saskatchewan Fire Safety Act:  It provides the authorities, powers and requirements for local authorities, fire chiefs and fire inspectors to enforce the National Fire Code and municipal fire bylaws within in their jurisdictions.
  • Accredited Fire Inspector Training: It provides the knowledge and procedures for fire departments to apply and enforce the National Fire Code and local fire bylaws to existing buildings within their communities.
  • Inspection Companies: They provide accredited roaming inspectors to apply and enforce the National Fire Code and municipal fire bylaws on behalf of local authorities and fire chiefs.

Fire fatalities

Should any number of fire fatalities in a community be acceptable before preventative actions are taken?

The issue of fire fatalities must also be addressed. Fire fatalities don’t only occur in cities. One example is the Town of Hudson Bay, Saskatchewan.  With a population of 1,400, this small community had 6 fire fatalities over an 18-month period beginning in 2017.  Astonishingly, that means one in every 233 people in that community died because of a fire over that 18-month time period. Prior to this, they also had a fire in 2011 that sadly took the lives of two-year-old twin girls.

In making the comparison with the population of larger centres, proportionally those 6 fire fatalities over an 18-month period would equate to this:

Swift Current: population 18,000
77 fire fatalities

Moose Jaw: population 34,000 145 fire fatalities

population 215,000 921 fire fatalities

population 2,800,000 12,000 fire fatalities

Those are staggering numbers, and it is a sobering comparison.

What would happen if any one of these cities experienced the same number of fire fatalities relative to Hudson Bay’s population over an 18-month period?  I think there would be a public outcry followed by swift and significant changes to fire prevention practices and fire code enforcement at the municipal level, and perhaps even at the provincial level.  However, I don’t think this number of fire fatalities would ever occur in these cities, for a number of reasons. 

One might argue that what happened in Hudson Bay is an anomaly, and not likely to happen again to that degree in a small community.  Perhaps… but what if it’s not?  Should any number of fire fatalities in a community be acceptable before preventative actions are taken?

The tragedy here is heart-wrenching.  I reflect on the emotional toll this has on small town fire fighters.  In a small community, those lives lost are often their neighbors, their friends, or are the loved ones of people they know.

“Something needs to be done”

In this article interviewing the Hudson Bay Fire Chief, it says this:

“Unlike Saskatoon and Regina, Hudson Bay has no bylaw requiring homes to have working smoke alarms. Pilon said he knows some don’t. He says he heard alarms ringing at just two of the five fatal fires his men responded to in the last 18 months. He’s not convinced a bylaw is the answer — after all, who would enforce it? — but says something needs to be done.”


I agree with this frustrated fire chief – something certainly needs to be done.  And he’s not alone. I know there are other small-town fire chiefs that share his frustration.

The thing is this, though – something can be done. The tools are there, they just need to be utilized.

In my next article, I’ll explore why it is not getting done.  It’s complicated.  Or is it?

Further Reading – Stories of fires in small town Saskatchewan:

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9 Responses

  1. To the list of resources, I would suggest one more: Building Standards and the Building Officials who serve the local community.

    Too often, a devastating fire that results in the loss of life or the loss of a major public building is directly related to building code deficiencies, which may have occurred at the time of construction (many decades ago perhaps) or during subsequent modifications. Ignoring codes and standards can seal the fate of a building and we have all seen the proof of this, far too many times.

    A fire inspector and building official working together can at least identify many such deficiencies, which is a first step in gaining support from owners and municipalities for achieving code compliance.

    1. Neil, I agree with you on building standards and building officials as added resources. I’ve engaged building officials many times during fire and life safety inspection processes.

      But I differ with you on your point that devastating fires and loss of life are often directly related to Building Code deficiencies. I firmly believe that it is Fire Code deficiencies that are often at play here.

      Here are some examples of Fire Code deficiencies that contribute to fire fatalities and loss of buildings:

      – Smoke alarm deficiencies
      – Obstructed means of egress
      – Flammable liquids exposed to a source of ignition
      – Commercial cooking fire suppression systems and fire protection equipment that have not been maintained
      – Electrical installations that are used and maintained in a manner that would constitute an undue fire hazard
      – Damaged fire separations
      – Damaged, blocked, wedged open or altered closures
      – Improper storage of combustibles, compressed gases and flammable liquids
      – Improper hot works, flammable spray applications, and dust producing processes.
      The list goes on.

      The Fire Code does have a number of provisions where compliance is to be in conformance with the Building Code for an existing building. These are often applied and enforced by a fire inspector, although a building official may be involved in the enforcement of these provisions as well.

      1. Wade, I don’t disagree with any of your points above. What I was trying to say was that many opportunities for better fire prevention are lost long before the fire inspector makes a first appearance. Indeed, many building code deficiencies are invisible in the completed building, but can make the difference between a loss or a save when a fire does start.

        Municipalities, and the province, need to take the whole picture a lot more seriously: rigorous fire code enforcement to minimize the chance of fires starting, and to ensure occupant safety when they do occur; rigorous building code enforcement for all construction, renovation and changes-of-use, so that buildings have no fatal flaws built into them.

        Let’s have a coffee some day soon!

        1. Neil, we’re definitely both on the same page. Fostering discussion and bringing things to light are exactly what is needed here. As you are both a fire chief and a building official, your perspectives are valuable on this subject.

          That would be great if we could cross paths sometime!

  2. I totally agree with this. I think another important tool for new buildings is “Every building shall be provided with an adequate water supply for firefighting.” This pertains to new buildings, but at least any new buildings would have another level of protection. It would provide a chance for the local fire department (volunteer or full time) to at least have water on site as opposed to hauling water. Sometimes smaller communities do not enforce this clause and only look at the financial and economic benefits of a larger company building in their community.

    1. Kinelm, coincidently I’m currently involved with an order to remedy related to It’s now in appeal. Just waiting on the decision.

      Tanker supply and water hauling are definitely not ideal for large fires.

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