Being on an island means Ramea faces an extra challenge when it comes to emergency firefighting.
Their closest support comes from the Burgeo Fire Department, but that ferry ride is over an hour-long trip one way, and that’s assuming the ferry is already docked in Burgeo and ready to go.
Ramea’s Paul Green has been serving as Fire Chief for six years now, and was first assistant chief before that. In total, he has been a firefighter for 36 years.
When St. Boniface All Grade School caught fire one morning in 1993, he was not only a firefighter, but a school teacher with a classroom full of students and a father with two young children in the building.
“I think we were teaching world geography that particular day,” he recalled. “I’ll always remember one of the guys that was in the back of the class – a hard case – he put his hand on wall and he said, ‘Mr. Green that wall is hot.’”
Green responded that the chimney was behind the wall and that it was just heat rising from the furnace in the basement. But as it turned out the student was right to worry.
“When the fire alarm went off the place just filled up with smoke,” recalls Green. “Everything was in the attic. The fire went up the chimney. That’s where it started.”
Back then St. Boniface was old wooden school, which had been built in 1968. Immediately across a narrow road was the community centre – it still sits across from the new school today – and when the fire broke out it was the designated emergency rally point. Like the other teachers, Green escorted his students to relative safety.
Fueled by 40 knot northwesterly winds, the blaze grew swiftly and engulfed the entire school before threatening to spread. Green ordered an evacuation of the community centre.
“There was nothing we could do. Nothing. And then of course the way the wind was – it was blowing right down through the centre of town,” he said.
The principal took care of getting Green’s children safely home and the Ramea Fire Department began hosing down the community centre. The Burgeo Fire Department also crossed over on the ferry to help.
“We were afraid we were going to lose the centre of town that day,” says Mayor Clyde Dominie. He was also teaching in the school when the fire broke out. He left the building with his students and the shirt on his back, leaving behind his coat and personal effects.
“The whole place burned to the ground. Everything.”
The fire departments saved the community centre, but a house immediately adjacent caught fire because of the overwhelming heat and was also destroyed.
“We were at it two days before we got it sufficiently out.”
It took over three years before the school was finally rebuilt. In the meantime, the church basement, the community centre, the lodge and St. Pat’s Hall were all used as makeshift classrooms.
“Every record of every student we ever had in the school was lost,” says Dominie, who is still truly grateful that nobody was hurt. “Our own fire department and Burgeo came in and kept it contained.”
The lessons learned from that day are why the Rock Island Music Festival in Ramea is so important as a fundraiser for the fire department.
“This is our third year fundraising (for a new truck),” says Green. “We’re talking about a $250,000 fire truck.”
Under the provincial-municipal split, Ramea will have to raise 20 per cent of the cost of the truck.
“We have close to $30,000,” says Green. “Usually for a full weekend, if we get a real good crowd, the fire department could profit probably about $10,000.”
The Grand In Your Hand ticket draw, which provides the winner $1,000 cold, hard cash on the spot, is held on Sunday and last year alone contributed $4,000 towards the new truck.
“Our fire truck is 25 years old. It has to be sent to Burgeo now to get inspected, so we don’t know what’s going to happen,” admits Green.
He knows the truck needs new brakes at least, and he suspects there are other problems with it as well.
“We’ve got a good department,” says Dominie.
When it comes to raising money for the new truck, he figures it’s just a matter of time.
“We’ll do our part,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Another emergency vehicle
Although the Ramea Fire Department is focused on fundraising primarily for its new pumper truck, a smaller emergency vehicle is also a necessity.
Ramea has a small medical clinic staffed by a nurse-practitioner, but the only other emergency response personnel on the island are the firefighters.
There is no proper ambulance service per se, and the RCMP are stationed in Burgeo.
Traditionally the fire department has always provided transport service for medical emergencies, although Gander will dispatch a helicopter should the situation warrant. However, as with most remote coastal communities, a helicopter transport is very much weather dependent.
In order to transport patients to and from the clinic, or to the ferry to Burgeo, the fire department uses a small emergency vehicle in lieu of an ambulance. Their current vehicle is 31 years old and in even worse shape than the fire truck.
“We can’t send it for inspection,” says Fire Chief Paul Green. “She won’t come back.”
The ambulance is no less important to Ramea than the fire truck. There are liability issues when it comes to transporting patients via a personal vehicle.
For the past two years Green has been making calls to provincial ambulance companies to see if Ramea can get a deal on a replacement vehicle. But even used emergency vehicles are expensive and hard to find, and there are other constraints beyond the financial to consider.
“They had ambulances available, but they would have been a cube van and that’s no good for us because we can’t get it in our truck bay,” said Green. “So we need one of those van types or smaller box ones.”
The department has even toyed with the idea of buying an old cargo van and converting it.
For now, Green will keep reaching out to see if an affordable, reliable replacement can be found, while the Rock Island Music Festival keeps on fundraising.