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Claims in limbo for wildfire losses

Memories of the Sept. 11, 2017, wildfire still burn deep in the minds of ranchers who lost cattle, property and grazing land.

More than a year later, most of them are still awaiting compensation payments from the federal Department of National Defence, which is responsible because the fire started on Canadian Forces Base Suffield and spread out of control to burn about 90,000 acres of land.

Among the 25 potential claimants, several have received interim payments but others are weary of what they consider to be a needlessly onerous process they say is being extended by the government-appointed adjuster.

“Besides a little bit of an interim payment, I haven’t settled much,” said Ivan Schlaht, a rancher who lost 98 cattle in the fire.

“The stress is just as bad now as it was two weeks after the fire… .We want it over with, get on with our lives. It just keeps dragging on.”

Wally Matthews, vice-president with Calgary-based Charles Taylor Adjusting, is assessing the claims, which are against the Crown as opposed to insurance claims.

Schlaht and claimants Tom Herman, John and Donna Campbell say Matthews is prolonging the process.

“He’s going between my neighbours and myself and trying to whittle us down. We’re being bullied, is basically the word for it,” said Schlaht.

“I think just trying to get us that we’re so disgusted… I just want to throw my hands up in the air and walk away from it, but you can’t do that. It’s my livelihood. But it wears on you.”

Matthews said he could not comment on the status of the claims process without direction from the defence department.

Major Doug Keirstead, spokesperson for that department, said in an email that an adjuster has been contracted to gather information needed to complete assessments.

“We are exploring options to assign additional resources to assist in resolving these claims as expeditiously as possible. In the meantime, to alleviate the financial burden on some claimants, we have offered interim payments and will consider the possibility of offering more interim payments before final settlement of the claims,” said Keirstead.

Tom Herman has a claim for fire damage, as does his mother. He said affected ranchers received pasture and grazing land assessments from the specialist with the Special Areas Board, but the adjuster has said he will not accept the findings.

Similarly other expert advice “from people with letters after their names,” said Herman, has been ignored by Matthews.

“He’s like any insurance company, he’s trying to say no to everything, just to see if you’ll walk away and give up,” he said. “We can’t walk away and give up. There’s lots of people that have lost way too much to their operation, especially with $250 hay this year. They just can’t recover. They used up their feed stocks last year and we’re short this year because of the drought.”

Dry conditions were obviously a major factor last year when the fire occurred, but drought this year has prolonged recovery of the fragile southeastern Alberta grasslands.

For John and Donna Campbell, loss of available grazing on two sections of land, expenses in moving cattle, loss of grazing for three to five years until the land recovers, and loss of fences and corrals, has pushed their claim to about $350,000.

“I’ve received nothing,” said the 75-year-old rancher who has been in business for more than 45 years.

“I’m trying not to have to get a job. I’m not young anymore. I don’t have mortgages but I still need to make a decent living for retirement time.”

Some of the claimants have consulted their MP, Kevin Sorenson, who said he has encouraged them to speak with federal ministers.

“The government is going to have to deal with this and is going to have to answer,” Sorenson said. “If they’ve hired someone and they aren’t satisfied with that, there’s going to have to be answers.”

Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes said he has a meeting with Alberta Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier on Oct. 10 and the fire “is one of the top line items I will be talking to him about.

“It’s just again an example of how rural people are sometimes unfairly treated and how a big government in Ottawa or Edmonton doesn’t help people,” said Barnes.

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