Local firefighter questions flood preparedness decision by city

By Kirk Winter

Local firefighter questions flood preparedness decision by city
Flooding seen in the Burnt River area in 2019. Photo: Geoff Coleman.

There are few guarantees in life, but once the weather turns warm in Kawartha Lakes, flooding, particularly in the north of the city, is all but a guarantee. For decades, volunteer firefighters went door-to-door from Burnt River to Cameron Lake warning of impending flooding and helping convey to residents the best way to prepare for the wall of water produced by spring melt in Algonquin Park.

For the last two springs, the Kawartha Lakes Fire Rescue has apparently discontinued this paid-duty program of personally warning residents of impending flooding, and long-time volunteer firefighter Mark Lowell believes this is a bad decision.

“I can get terminated just for speaking to the press,” Lowell told The Advocate in a telephone interview. “I just can’t sit quietly and say nothing.”

“For many years we went door to door warning a flood was imminent. Many people would leave after we spoke with them, but for those who chose to stay we would remind them that in some places they would be dealing with waist deep water and could be without power for four to five days. The department stopped the home-to-home service two years ago and now officials seem to be taking the stand that if you bought on the Burnt River it is your fault for buying on a potential flood plain.”

“The previous fire chief, Dave Guilbault, the OPP and other city staff set up the door-to-door canvas with an officer and two fire staff,” Lowell recounts. “Bylaw allowed us to use their (city owned) ATVs.”

Lowell believes this spring a door-to-door is particularly necessary “because of all the new people who have wintered for the first time (in Kawartha Lakes) because they haven’t gone south. We dealt with many of these folks through the winter with chimney fires and the like. There are at least a dozen first-time residents on the road behind me who have never experienced spring in the area.”

“I hope we don’t have flooding at all this year,” Lowell added. “If we do, we have one to two days to get ready if a flood is imminent. We should be out over the next couple of weeks knocking. Most of the volunteer firefighters have their own ATVs that they use because in many cases larger vehicles cannot travel many of the already water-logged roads.”

Lowell sees a big difference in the way Minden Hills deals with flooding warnings versus Kawartha Lakes.

“I spoke to senior officials in Minden Hills about their response to flooding,” Lowell said. “They declare a disaster. When they do that, provincial assistance becomes available and WSIB kicks in to cover all volunteers, including fire personnel, who might be hurt helping out. Kawartha Lakes won’t declare a disaster. We aren’t even allowed to use the term ‘rescued.’ We are told to say ‘assisted’ instead. A couple of signs at each end of the flood plain are not nearly enough warning.”

When asked why spring door knocking was discontinued, Ashley Locke, communications, advertising and marketing officer for the city, challenged the existence of a structured and city-approved door knocking program detailed by Lowell.

“There has never been a program in place. There may have been times where fire fighters were supervising the area during a flood event and they were checking on houses to see if the property owners were home, or if anyone needed assistance, but there was never an official door knocking program in place,” said Locke.

When asked if volunteer fire personnel have been told not to talk to the press about on-the-job concerns Locke shared, “Any personnel who represent the City of Kawartha Lakes must follow employee guidelines in place that state only those who have been designated spokespeople on a particular subject matter are to be interviewed by the media. Staff may choose to speak to the media on other matters unrelated to city business or of a personal nature.”

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