Firefighters in the Rural Municipalities of Stuartburn and Emerson-Franklin are on the cusp of a Mutual Aid agreement with their American neighbors. The agreement would mobilize up to 50 firefighters on either side of the border to assist in extinguishing a fire too great for one department to put out by itself.  

When Scott Olson became the Emergency Manager of Kittson County, Minnesota, a few years ago, he says he was surprised at the lack of interaction between his fire crews and those in the province of Manitoba. “Sometimes it seemed like the world just sort of ended there."

While forming a partnership was on his radar from day one, Olson says a fire that tore through one of his local communities back in 2018 really ignited his efforts.

“We had a wildfire in Clow Township that ended up going into Canada,” he recalls, “at the time, it was kind of a big deal, and tankers all the way from Kenora had to come out.”

Observing the vigor and tenacity that his Canadian counterparts used to beat back the blaze convinced Olson that a Mutual Aid agreement was, in fact, a mutually advantageous move. Immediately, he began compiling documents, contacting politicians, and reasoning with border services agencies on either side of the 49th parallel.

At its essence, The Mutual Aid System is a reciprocal system of emergency response that gives a community access to another community’s fire department, when the need is great, at no additional cost.

“It’s been my labor of love for the past two and half years, trying to get this thing finalized,” he says, “and we are very very close now.”

The American and Canadian Border Services Administrations have agreed to give the firefighters 24/7 gate access along the Tolstoi-Lancaster crossing.According to Olson, dealing with customs has only been part of the battle, the larger challenge for him in this process has been convincing the State of Minnesota that entering into an international agreement is a good idea. The holdup, he notes, has primarily been on the American side. Because Emerson already has a partnership with the nearby City of Pembina, the provincial government saw no trouble with a similar agreement further east. For Kittson County, though, it was a novel concept. Nevertheless, after years of letters and discussions, Olson says everything is in place to make Mutual Aid a reality.

“Basically, what it has come down to is that the governor of the State of Minnesota is the person who needs to approve a cross-border agreement on our side.”

During this process, Olson says he has befriended the great fire chiefs of the region. He mentions Emerson Chiefs Jeff French and Barry Gushuliak and Stuartburn Chief Bob Fostey by name.

Gushuliak commends Olson’s hard work and says he too has a notable team behind him.

“The departments in Minnesota are really good at fighting wildland fires. And they probably have more equipment when we do when it comes to water bombers and helicopters," Gushuliak remarks. "They’ll do whatever it takes to stop it from coming across into Canada.”

Once given the green light, fire crews from Emerson and Stuartburn and Kittson County will be able to freely move across the Tolstoi-Lancaster border at any hour of the day. Both services have granted the firefighters gate access after-hours.

The governer's approval is expected by the end of the month, though, depending on his response, Olson says Mutual Aid may only take effect in January of 2021.