Response time questioned after fire rips through Elsipogtog apartment building

Elsipogtog band council hails firefighters, despite fury over slow response

At least eight families lost their homes in Elsipogtog First Nation after a fire in an apartment building reignited early Thursday and burned for at least an hour before firefighters — who didn't hear their pagers go off — arrived.

Allan Peters, fire chief of the Elsipogtog Fire Department, said the fire initially broke out shortly before 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

Firefighters quickly extinguished the fire, which started in one of the eight units of the building on Graham Road in Elsipogtog, 90 kilometres north of Moncton.

Peters said he returned to the apartment building around 11 p.m. to ensure all the hot spots were out.  

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Then the fire reignited again a few hours later.

"It was pretty engulfed when we got here," Peters said. "Way out of control."

People living in the building had already left after the first fire, and no one was injured.

But the fire destroyed the building, and residents and others are now asking why the Elsipogtog Fire Department was slow to respond when the fire started up again.

Peters believes a power outage knocked out the paging service used to alert firefighters. Only two of the 22 volunteer firefighters heard a page after the fire reignited.

"Those pagers are loud," he said.

About 2,600 NB Power customers in the Kent County area, including 525 in Elsipogtog, lost power at about 4:30 a.m., but the utility said the outage was not related to the fire. 

Peters said he learned of the fire when a fellow firefighter went to his house and pounded on the door.

"He had power where he was living, so he got the page," he said. 

The lone firefighter

It's not clear when the morning fire was first reported, but Jason Augustine, a firefighter with the Elsipogtog Fire Department, said his page came in at 4:17 a.m. and he arrived at the fire at 4:20 a.m. 

"Right off the bat, I started to ask if everybody was out of the building," said Augustine, who lives in the same area of the community where the fire took place and was the first firefighter there.  

He called for more firefighters from the Elsipogtog department but didn't receive a response. 

Then he started calling 911 for mutual aid backup around 4:30 a.m.

"We've never had a problem like this before," he said. 

Mutual aid in the dark

Brent Goodwin, fire chief with the Rexton Fire Department, said his firefighters in Rexton responded to the fire shortly before 5 a.m. — the same time the Elsipogtog Fire Department arrived on scene.

"According to the paramedics and RCMP, the fire had been burning for over an hour before we were called to assist," Goodwin said.

Typically, the Elsipogtog Fire Department will call Rexton for fire assistance, a community about 14 kilometres north of Elsipogtog. But Rexton firefighters didn't receive the call and didn't know anything about the blaze.

They were later called in by RCMP instead.

"We should've been called by somebody before," Goodwin said.

"When somebody doesn't show up for that length of time or really 15, 20 minutes, there should've been a call put out to their mutual aid department."

Peters said he eventually did call for backup when he found out about the fire but Rexton was already on its way. 

He said about 12 firefighters from the Rexton Fire Department and three from Elsipogtog Fire Department got to the fire.

"The paramedics and the RCMP were fairly upset because it was a long time before [firefighters arrived]," said Goodwin, the Rexton chief.

The New Brunswick Fire Marshal and Department of Public Safety have not responded yet to questions about the response, whether the province will investigate what happened, and the vulnerability of emergency paging systems when the power goes out.

'This isn't right'

Robert Joseph, who lives across the street from the burned building, said something needs to be done to make sure firefighters respond as soon as possible.

"We called the fire department at 4 o'clock and they told us the Elsipogtog Fire Department was on scene," he said.

"When I looked outside there was only one fireman out there standing with his gear on."

Joseph said he's relieved no one was hurt but he is worried about a future fire.

"What would [firefighters] do if somebody was in there?" he said. "This isn't right, something's got to be done."

'Snap and crackling'

Joseph got up in the night and thought he heard rain.

"I could hear this loud snap and crackling," he said. "I had thought it was a downpour or something."

His mother moved into the apartment building about a year ago. Now she's lost all her belongings and has no home to return to.

"She didn't get the chance to get a pair of clothes for today or anything," he said. "She's still in her jammies."

Joseph said he encouraged his mother to come stay with him after the first fire was put out Wednesday night. And when the fire reignited, Joseph said, he was glad his mom was with him.

Couldn't be saved

"I walked out and I could see this big flame to the next-door apartments," he said. 

"Man, there was nothing they could do for it, it was already gone."

Micheal Levi, the owner of the building, said it was built by his father.​

"I'm just grateful nobody was hurt and everybody got out," he said.