A land heals after devastating fire

As the dust devils dance in southeastern Alberta, farmers in the Hilda, Schuler and Acadia Valley areas plant seeds and hope for quick germination and roots that will cling to the soil.

They’re planting into land ravaged by an October prairie wildfire that burned more than 25,500 cultivated acres in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Amid flames and high winds, the fire consumed stubble and ground litter, subjecting the soil to wind erosion in the months that followed.

“We’re seeding all of our burned ground,” Hilda farmer Andy Kirschenman said from the cab of his tractor May 3.

“Right now we’re putting in spring triticale where the winter triticale winter-killed because there was no cover on it since the fire. The winter crops seem to have come through winter quite well, other than where the burned area is. We had 600 areas of winter triticale seeded, and it looks like we’re going to be reseeding 400 acres of that.”

Josh Beck, another farmer in the region, started seeding on April 28. About 2,000 acres of the family’s cropland burned last October.

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“It’s dry and it’s blowing,” he said.

“If you go across it more than once it powders it up so much and then it blows away, and some seeds are in moisture and some are in dry ground, just because of the way that we had to work it last fall to try and hold it from blowing away.”

He was among many area residents who fought the Oct. 17 fires, which occurred in multiple areas under the force of 100 km-h winds and tinder-dry conditions that plagued a large swath of the Prairies last year.

That event and its aftermath weigh on those who fought it and those who lost because of it.

“It’s still on everybody’s mind. That’s all we talk about, seems like,” said Beck.

But the hope that is always present at the start of a growing season is a help, he added.

This photo, taken Sept. 14, 2017, shows a trail through some of the 90,000 acres of burned grassland in southeastern Alberta near Bindloss, Alta., in the aftermath of a wildfire that started on Canadian Forces Base Suffield Sept. 11 and burned until the following day. | File photo

“We’ll all be thankful when June comes around and all the fields are greened up again. Then we’ve just got to look at the burned fence posts.”

A look at Alberta’s fire risk map in mid May doesn’t show a pretty picture as far as moisture is concerned. Smaller fires, none with the magnitude seen last fall, have already occurred in central and southern Alberta and Saskatchewan.

With the benefit of hindsight, those affected by last fall’s fires are taking precautions.

“We’ve got a really good fire break in that there’s a whole pile of ground that’s not going to burn no matter what because there’s nothing on it,” said Kirschenman with a bit of black humour.

But on a serious note, he thinks people will be keeping equipment handier this year in case fire control becomes necessary and will think more about how and where fire can spread rather than trying to stop it mid-field.

“We should be going to structures, residences and yards and make it go around there as opposed to stopping the fire,” he said.

“We would have been much better off trying to narrow it on the side and trying to protect yards, ours included. My parents lost their house and a shed, as well as we lost a lot of equipment. So that would have been a much better place to have put our resources than trying to stop the fire completely.

“We should have known that because of the 100 km-h wind. There shouldn’t have been any question … but everybody thinks you can get the fire out, and sometimes you can’t.”

The fire that damaged so much property around Hilda is thought to have started from the embers of a permitted fire a day or two previous. A fire that same day in the Municipal District of Acadia, north of Hilda and along the Saskatchewan border, was caused by power poles and lines blown down in the high winds, causing sparks that ignited dry ground.

Since then, the MD of Acadia has examined its bylaws and is awaiting results from a couple of investigations, said chief administrative officer Brent Williams.

“We are looking to revamp our controlled burn policies along with our policy around fire bans. That wasn’t the cause of our fire, but those two issues were involved in the fires in the province. So those two things are underway right now,” he said.

He anticipated that changes will involve more severe consequences for those who contravene fire bans or don’t follow burn permit stipulations.

As for the investigations, Williams said electrical transmission provider Atco has contracted a third party to study why power poles broke and why the electricity wasn’t tripped off when the poles fell.

Williams said the Alberta Utilities Commission is also studying the power line in question to see if any policies should be changed to avoid similar occurrences.

Given that the line traverses most of the MD of Acadia north to south, it’s a burning question.

“Ideally we’d like it to come back and say that this 40-year-old power line has to have some sort of work or addition done to it to secure this from happening again,” Williams said.

On other fronts, he said the MD has partnered with the Special Areas board to apply for provincial FireSmart funding that, if approved, would help area residents better secure their properties against fire.

It has also successfully tested a mass telephone calling plan using global information systems technology. It would allow the MD to phone or text every resident in the region should an emergency occur.

The Hilda area is in Cypress County, and Beck said the local grazing co-operative has invested in two-way radios for its members to improve emergency response and communication.

“The night of the fire, the cellphones didn’t work because the system was so jammed up, so we bought these two-way radios and hopefully we don’t have to use them, but if we do we can communicate between us a little more so we know where to go and what to do,” said Beck.

Kirschenman also recalled dismal or non-existent cellular phone service when it was most needed last fall.

“Our cell service is horrendous here, and nobody seems to care, so that’s probably one thing that’s at the forefront of our minds.”

He’s been told poor coverage also inhibits police and fire department response.

In the bigger picture, the losses of last year were high and some will continue to be felt.

“We talk about losses in a couple of different ways,” said Kirschenman, who heads the Hilda fire relief fund that has received donations from agricultural businesses, groups and individuals. “You’ve got immediate losses, which would be cattle and structures and things like that. We have kind of near-term losses, which would be grazing land,” he said.

“And then we have the longer-term losses, which would be soil erosion on some of the cultivated lands, and we really don’t have any idea what that loss is going to actually be.”

However, resilience of the people affected does not seem to be in question.

“I’d have to say the vast majority of the credit for this progress and situation right now is due to the hard work and resiliency of the people affected by the fires in both the Acadia and Hilda area,” said Williams.

“What they’ve been through and what they’ve accomplished is admirable and incredible. They’ve really stepped up.”

Added Kirschenman: “It’s amazing how the land is able to heal itself. We have to trust that that will happen to the people of the community as well.”

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