Alberta ranchers say CFB Suffield detonated an old artillery shell despite a fire ban and sparked a prairie fire that destroyed livestock, winter feed and a home
BINDLOSS, Alta. — The quilt presented to 89-year-old Morley Sarvis of Bindloss at a meeting here Sept. 14 is among the few possessions he has left.
Sarvis lost his home, outbuildings and farm equipment in a Sept. 11-12 prairie wildfire in southeastern Alberta and barely escaped with his life.
Neighbours broke a window to gain entry to his house and rescue the sleeping rancher when fire ate its greedy way to his home and beyond on the evening of Sept. 11.
“I’ve lost everything.”
That is all Sarvis had to say to several hundred ranchers and community members who gathered to discuss the fire that burned 90,000 acres, killed or maimed an estimated 120 cattle and burned several ranchers’ winter feed supplies and pasture.
Those ranchers and the rest of the community want to know how and why the fire started on Canadian Forces Base Suffield and what the base and/or the government intends to do about compensation for losses.
Lieutenant Colonel Mike Onieu, base commander at CFB Suffield, confirmed the fire began on the base when personnel detonated an old artillery shell.
In a Sept. 18 interview, Onieu said a board of inquiry has been called and will involve military personnel not directly connected to Suffield. As well, a task force will investigate the explosion, and the base fire marshall is reviewing the incident.
Onieu said he has no control over the inquiry but “my intention is to be completely open about everything. If it is not classified, I will definitely be handing my copy over to anyone who wants to see it.”
Ranchers in the Bindloss, Buffalo and Jenner areas said at the meeting that this fire was the worst of many set on the base that have spread to their properties over the past 20 years.
“They tell us they want to be our friends and neighbours,” said area resident Jack Stelter.
“I’ll tell you what, they’re not very good friends.”
Onieu said comments of that nature are not a surprise.
“I guess I understand why they don’t view us as friends and neighbours. It’s difficult living beside a base. We haven’t always been good at communicating to our neighbours what we do or why we do it or how we’re mitigating the risks associated with our operations.”
Several others wondered why the army base ignored or is exempt from a fire ban imposed in the Special Areas on Sept. 5 after prolonged dry and hot weather across the south.
“This was no accident,” said one man in the standing-room-only crowd at the Bindloss community hall.
“There’s a fire ban on. If it was you or I started the fire and it got away, we’d be charged. So there they are, detonating arms … it was not accidental. It was intentional. And it ended up taking all you people’s hard work and livestock.”
Onieu said the base tries to mitigate risks but military exercises and base activity cannot be suspended for extended periods.
Ivan Schlaht lost about 60 cattle in the fire. He had to shoot 18 animals to end their suffering from burns. He is also dealing with orphaned calves whose mothers died trying to escape.
In an interview, he couldn’t contain his grief when he talked about finding his cattle lying amid scorched earth.
“They were trying to get out of the fire and they just couldn’t escape. They weren’t trapped. They were trying to outrun it. The ones that we put down, you kind of wished would have died in the fire too,” he said, his voice breaking.
“I feel sorry for those animals that had to go through that.”
At the meeting later, Schlaht demanded answers.
“This has been going on too damn long,” he said about dangers created by the army base.
“We can’t be that passive anymore. We’ve been passive for 40 years.… It’s got to stop. It’s just got to stop.”
Daryl Swenson, who represents Special Area 2 where the fire spread, said the base must be made accountable for its actions.
“The military base at Suffield, I’m 60 years old and since I was a child, it’s always been a threat. They never take care of the fires out there. It’s just, ‘let it burn,’ and when it gets to the fireguards and the roads that are there, if they don’t hold it and it comes across, it’s our responsibility.
“I want this to stop. Somebody’s going to get killed.”
Swenson was among those who took heavy losses in the fire, which he estimates are valued at more than $50,000.
“I’ve got miles of fence I’ve got to rebuild. All my winter pasture is gone. My hay bales are all burned up. I’ve got some cropland that was all burnt up.
“I can’t afford those kinds of losses. I’m not like the military. I have to earn my own keep.”
The prairie fire began in the evening of Sept. 11 and burned an estimated 74,000 acres on the army base. Pushed by wind, it spread to the Remount Community Pasture bordering the base and from there onto private land, consuming another 16,000 acres.
Jeff Lewandoski, area rancher and chief of the Jenner volunteer fire department, was called in to fight the fire well before a local state of emergency was declared at 11:48 p.m. Sept. 11. His fire crew went onto CFB Suffield where base fire crews were battling the fire.
“We could see they were beat and they needed resources so we took some resources in there to give them a hand, but they didn’t come back and help us,” Lewandoski said.
When the Jenner crew returned to the fire after refilling their trucks
with water, the army base range patrol had arrived and imposed rules.
“Now we had to follow range control trucks out onto the range and we were not allowed to move unless we checked in at the station and checked out,” said Lewandoski.
“The fire’s blazing. They made it impossible for us to do anything. So we sat there for approximately about 45 minutes. And then we had other fires sparking up on the outside.”
More than 14 fire services from across the Special Areas and neighbouring municipalities responded to the fire call, including some as far away as Leader, Sask., Oyen, Alta., and Medicine Hat. About 40 area residents had to evacuate their homes with only minutes of notice.
Laurel Schlaht and her husband, Alan, lost six quarters of winter feed and native pasture and said rangeland experts estimate it will take three to five years for pastures to recover to former productivity.
She told the meeting that because of its fault for the fire, CFB Suffield should fix all burned fences, provide bales for cattle until the land is restored, compensate ranchers for the loss of cattle and bales, cover veterinary bills and replace Sarvis’s home.
Federal MP Kevin Sorenson, who attended the meeting along with Alberta MLAs Drew Barnes and Rick Strankman, said he would take up the matter with the minister of defence.
“My job is to see that we get answers to the process of what’s going on within the block or within camp Suffield,” said Sorenson.
“What is the process … what happens when there’s a fire ban everywhere around you and yet you’re exploding ordinances that you know very likely could start a prairie fire or a wildfire?”
Onieu said he has plans to improve community relations.
“If anything, this recent fire incident just reinforces the importance of doing a better job of relating to the people around us.
“We’re deeply concerned with the welfare of our neighbours and we want to mitigate the impact of our operations to the very best of our ability.”
As for Sarvis, who lost his home, Ivan Schlaht said he was helping him find a place to live, possibly in a seniors residence in Oyen.
“He’s taking it pretty good, really,” said Schlaht Sept. 14.
“I took him out to his place the next morning (after the fire). To tell you your place is gone and to see it are two different things. But this has finished him.”