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'Just wood and straw': Southwest Fire Academy douses concerns

‘If there are any other concerns, we want to know about it,’ says academy official of proposed live fire training site for firefighting students in Tay
Southwest Fire Academy, located at 36 Hazel St. in Waubaushene.

Firefighting can be another word for controlling and calming a situation, which is what a local fire college wants to do for Tay Township residents.

The Southwest Fire Academy (SFA), located in Waubaushene, is a career college for training emergency services and pre-service firefighting. Its fire training services came at a time when the Ontario Fire College in Gravenhurst had closed in 2021, allowing firefighters from North Simcoe and Southern Georgian Bay to benefit from the facility.

During the recent regular meeting of Tay council, the head of the SFA presented an update on a proposed training site to burn clean materials for firefighting students at 1420 Newton St.

President Brent Sterling informed council and the public about the Class A materials, defined in the firefighting textbooks as ordinary combustibles such as wood, paper, cloth and similar materials.

“What Southwest will be burning at this location is wood and straw, and it won’t be anything that’s treated or of any construction materials,” explained Sterling. “It will be just wood and straw.”

Additional photos showed a common metal 45-gallon barrel (or 0.204 cubic metres) with holes poked in it for airflow, set deep in a shipping container. Sterling pointed out that while Tay bylaws allow residents to burn backyard fires up to one cubic metre in size, the academy would only be burning a fraction of that in the barrel.

Sterling also noted that steam would be the result of the burns, and not smoke as had concerned some residents who raised opposition to the proposal in a public meeting last year.

Coun. Sylvia Bumstead, prior to being elected to the current term of council, had expressed written opposition to last year’s proposal over issues of toxicity in the materials; she shared in the recent public meeting that the watercourse at 1420 Newton St. also ran through her property.

As a councillor, her pointed questions to Sterling and vice-president Jesse Bond pried into the desirability of the site over other areas like the Old Fort Road fire hall or the academy’s location in Waubaushene itself. Their response was the Newton location was further from neighbours while being close to a source water body on site.

“The (training site) construction that took place in 2022; who initiated the construction prior to any approvals or amendments?” asked Bumstead. “Did the academy initiate the construction, or the property owner?”

Sterling replied: “That was us and we overstepped. Once we became aware of it, we immediately came to the township – and we apologize for that, it was a misstep – and sought the appropriate approvals.” 

Other council members were more receptive to the presentation, with Coun. Gerard LaChapelle in great support. When it came to the request from the SFA, however, council appeared confused to the specifics.

Within the presentation, Sterling had asked for support from Tay council as further conversations with the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks had stalled from January conversations, with the province waiting for the academy to construct a catch basin for water used in training. Council discussed how best to assist, but decided it was up to the SFA to handle that matter on their own.

The other request from Sterling was informal but of large importance, as he implored council and members of the public to ask any questions regarding fire training, the burn site, materials, and other concerns to come forward, in an attempt to address any misconceptions on the matter.

“We ask this so that we can clearly understand the feasibility of the project relating to cost before we invest a lot more money,” said Sterling.

It was decided that council would hold off on supporting Southwest Fire Academy until conditions had been met and satisfied by the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks.

Tay council meets for regular council meetings every fourth Wednesday of the month. Archives and livestreams of council meetings are available through the Tay Township YouTube channel.

Further information including council’s agenda can be found on the Tay Township website.

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Derek Howard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

About the Author: Derek Howard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Derek Howard covers Midland and Penetanguishene area civic issues under the Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the Government of Canada.
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