Armed Forces base must take responsibility for devastating fire

It is a case where good fences do not make good neighbours.

In the case of Canadian Forces Base Suffield in southern Alberta and the ranchers whose land borders it, good fences have become barriers to amicable relationships.

Tensions that date back some 30 or 40 years came to a head the night of Sept. 11. A fire started on the base, burned about 74,000 acres of federal land and then burned an estimated 16,000 acres of community pasture and private land.

One elderly rancher lost his home, buildings and equipment. Others lost an estimated 120 head of cattle, bales, stored feed and winter pasture. About 40 residents in the path of the fire fled their homes when a local state of emergency was declared.

But for the intervention of numerous fire departments and personnel who came from miles around, the prairie fire could have done even more damage.

As it was, it left in its wake numerous dead and dying cattle that had been unable to outrun the wind-driven blaze, which licked up tinder-dry grass and sagebrush.

Seldom do tough and independent ranchers cry, but the sight of those animals and the need to put some out of their misery drove more than a few to tears. Now they face the grim tasks of carcass disposal, fence replacement and figuring out how to feed and winter their cattle.

CFB Suffield has admitted the fire started on the base after personnel set off unexploded ordinance as a safety measure. Its own fire service fought the fire but was unable to control it.

When the fire did spread, army personnel did not help to fight it on private land and, according to reports from volunteer fire fighters, even hindered the efforts of others through blind adherence to protocol.

This fire is the most egregious incident involving CFB Suffield and its neighbours. Local ranchers say they’ve lost count of the number of fires started on the base that either threaten or have affected community pastures or private land. It is a constant source of stress.

As well, the base has long been loath to effectively reduce the massive elk herd on its property that has adversely affected ranchers, though in fairness, that responsibility is not all theirs.

Training of Canadian armed forces is important and necessary for the protection of this country and its role in global relations. CFB Suffield is an important resource in those goals.

But while it trains soldiers to protect people in other countries, it should also protect its immediate neighbours. That it fails to do so seems ridiculous.

The base bears responsibility for this fire and the damage it caused. Compensation for those who sustained losses is required.

No one lost their lives in last week’s fire, but it was a near thing.

Beyond the serious literal and figurative fence mending required, CFB Suffield must review its protocols and accept its responsibility to be a good neighbour.

Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod, D’Arce McMillan and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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