Fire to have little impact on Alta. forage sector

The June 30 fire at Green Prairie International has been possibly linked to the extreme heat wave that had blanketed the Prairies that week, and the chair of the Alberta Forage Industry Network says it is a potential example of what can be expected in the future as the climate continues to change. | Barb Glen photo

Green Prairie International’s other buildings were spared from the recent blaze and will be able to continue processing hay

An extreme heat wave may have led to temperatures of up to 70 C inside a building that subsequently caught fire June 30 at Canada’s leading exporter of compressed hay, says the company’s president.

“Everything is a factor at that stage, especially at that heat,” said John Van Hierden of Green Prairie International Inc. near Lethbridge. Although he cautioned July 7 the fire was still under investigation, “if you’re sitting at possibly 70 C out inside that building, that’s hot.”

The blaze is a potential example of what lies ahead for people such as forage suppliers or beef producers due to climate change, said Surya Acharya, chair of the Alberta Forage Industry Network.

“I think the key thing is that the climate is changing very rapidly and some of these very dry events, or very wet events in some places, are becoming more and more frequent,” said Acharya, who is also a forage research scientist with Agriculture Canada in Lethbridge.

“Everybody has to be very, very careful from now on, particularly those who depend on the dry hay and things like that for their cattle.”

The massive fire destroyed a 58,000-sq.-foot building that contained a new pelleting machine, said Van Hierden. It also contained up to 1,200 tonnes of hay, as well as supplies such as sleeves and cardboard boxes and equipment such as forklifts, he added.

Although the blaze likely caused more than $5 million in damage, he said it will have little impact on the forage industry in terms of markets or suppliers. The company’s other facilities were saved by firefighters from Lethbridge and Coaldale assisted by neighbouring farmers.

About 130 people are employed by the firm, said Van Hierden, adding none will be laid off due to the fire.

“For the most part, it’s business as usual and we just have to put up some temporary storage until we rebuild. And we’re down our pelleting machine… so we’re looking for areas or somebody that can do some pelleting because we’ve got some contracts out there.”

He expected changes could occur in the company’s practices depending on the outcome of the investigation into the fire.

The blaze occurred the same day as a wildfire that killed two people and destroyed the village of Lytton, B.C. Environment Canada said a heat dome that blanketed much of Western Canada set new maximum daily temperature records in 49 communities across Alberta for June 30, including 36.3 C for the Lethbridge area.

Van Hierden said potential factors in the fire at Green Prairie International include clear panels in the metal building’s roof. He said they may have helped boost temperatures within the structure by as much as an extra 30 C, likely resulting in heat in the 70 C range.

The same weather system resulted in record highs for Canada being set in Lytton three days in a row, including 49.6 C on June 29. The sudden wildfire the next day that had residents unexpectedly fleeing for their lives underlines the challenges the forage industry could potentially face planning for climate change, said Acharya.

An international team of climate scientists called the World Weather Attribution has concluded the heat wave would have been virtually impossible without climate change. The group includes researchers from universities such as Oxford in the United Kingdom and Princeton in the United States.

Van Hierden said no one was injured in the blaze at Green Prairie International, something he credited to regular fire drills. He said one employee who was near an exit escaped the building when the entire structure was engulfed in flames within about five seconds after ignition.

The new pelleting machine was installed to put all “our dust and stuff into pellets,” said Van Hierden. The combination of dust in the building plus intense heat over several days was being weighed as a potential factor in the rapid spread of the fire, he added.

He said the hay within the building went through several stringent check points to ensure it was dry, minimizing the chance the blaze was caused by spontaneous combustion from wet hay.

“This is all perfectly beautiful green hay and 12 months old already, and so it would have gone up a long time ago if that was the case.”

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