Tallying the damage from wildfire storm

Ashes and soil continue to blow from many areas burned in wildfires across southern Alberta Oct. 17.

Environment Canada has issued several wind warnings since then, but a widespread windstorm on that day had sustained winds of about 120 km/h and reported gusts of up to 141 km/h, depending on the region.

The wind downed power lines, blew two trains off their tracks, overturned semi-trailers and fanned at least half a dozen grass fires — most of them started by downed electrical lines — into frenzies that burned homes, outbuildings and farmland and killed hundreds of cattle and other livestock.

The damage is still being tallied.

In Alberta’s southwest, a fire in Coleman forced evacuation of part of the town. Fires near Carseland, Airdrie, Gleichen and Siksika First Nation were all reported the night of Oct. 17, as was one at Moon River Estates near Lethbridge and another in Lethbridge’s river valley within city limits. All those fires forced temporary evacuation of residents in the area.

On the province’s eastern side, a wildfire near Hilda, Alta., burned homes, buildings, stored feed, stubble and cattle. Residents throughout the region evacuated in dangerous conditions under heavy smoke and blowing soil. 

That fire or another, near Empress, Alta., spread to Burstall, Sask., and was threatening Sceptre and Leader before being brought under control. During that fight, local rancher and volunteer fire fighter James Hargrave was killed. 

When the smoke cleared on Oct. 19, Alberta Emergency Management Agency reported 14 homes lost, in Acadia Valley, Gleichen, Stobart, Rockyview County and Siksika First Nation.

Farmers and ranchers affected by the various fires spent much of last week assessing damage. 

The fire near Hilda burned an estimated 75,000 acres, making it the largest of those reported Oct. 17 and larger than another wildfire that took its toll in the nearby Bindloss area Sept. 11. 

“It’s just hell, what we witnessed there that night,” said Syd McCurdy of Empress. He his neighbours risked their lives fighting fire when the wind switched, nearly trapping them in the blaze.

With fires burning at both Empress and Hilda, fire crews were hard pressed to fight both at once, and most were at the Hilda fire because it started first, McCurdy said.

“People don’t realize how hard it is to do anything in a wind like that.”

He lost 95 head of cattle, some of them in the fire and some put down because of their burns and injuries. Last Thursday, friends and neighbours came to bury those animals and McCurdy, grateful for the help, couldn’t bring himself to watch.

“I’m a bit numb, to be honest,” he said.

Those who battled the blaze that night around Hilda and Burstall, 30 kilometres away, say the wind was as much an enemy as the fire.

“The wind, that’s what made this such a hard fire to fight, said Burstall, Sask., farmer and fire chief Russell Job.

“We had so much wind along with it that you couldn’t see where the fire was to fight it. You had to find the fire in the dust. And then you were fighting with smoke and with dust. We were fighting this fire in a giant brown dust storm.”

Job credited the tandem disks and vertical tillage implements as having a greater effect on the fire than did any water that could be applied in the high winds.

“You couldn’t get close with a fire hose. And if you were on the wrong side of it, all the water did was come back in your face.”

Burstall, Sask., Mayor Tegan Bodnarchuk said fire departments from all over the region saved the town and as many farms and outbuldings as they could.

“I want to thank everyone who stepped up. It was really a huge community effort from local and very far, both the Alberta and Saskatchewan side that gave us support,” said Bodnarchuk.

Ivan Schlacht, who suffered losses in the September wildfire near Bindloss, stopped to help fight fire at Hilda when on his way home with machine parts. 

“You couldn’t see for the dirt and ash,” he said. When he heard of a second fire at Empress, he went home, got his tractor and headed over to make fire breaks, as did many other farmers in the region.

Andy Kirschenman, who farms near Hilda, got word of the fire shortly after noon.

“I took off. It was big and it was windy. We tried to stop it. Thinking about that again, it didn’t make much sense because there was just no way. It jumped the highway like nothing. The wind switched twice.

“It was ugly.”

His parents’ house burned down. They were away at the time, said Kirschenman, and last week came home from Europe to survey the damage and make plans.

He also lost a combine, two grain trucks, a swather and a shed.

Last week he was putting out hot spots and thinking about his fall-seeded fields.

“Some of the fields that I thought we were going to be clear on, there’s nothing left of them. We had some winter cereals seeded. They were just coming out of the ground, so we’ll have to see how it affected that too. But yes, it’s ugly.”

Brad Osadczuk is on the volunteer fire department at Jenner, which was on standby in case of fire further west of the Hilda-Burstall conflagration. As damage reports continue to come in, he is concerned for his neighbours.

“We’ll be there for them. Whatever we have to do, we’ll take care of these neighbours of ours. We’ll figure it out, I guess. Day by day.”

Pastor Steve Driediger of Hilda Baptist Church was evacuated along with his family the night of the fire. Last week, he was visiting members of his flock, including one family who lost their home.

“The biggest, most consistent sentiment that’s been expressed is thankfulness that things weren’t any worse than they were. There have been plenty of people that found themselves in scary and downright terrifying situations that they didn’t actually think they were going to escape.”

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