Major forage company suffers fiery setback

Green Prairie International Inc. near Lethbridge is a significant buyer of timothy and alfalfa hay from southern Alberta forage growers. | Barb Glen photo

Last week’s fire causes millions of dollars in damage at Green Prairie International Inc. in southern Alberta

Green Prairie International, Canada’s largest exporter of compressed hay, was badly damaged by fire June 30 in the latest of several blazes that have plagued the business over the years.

The full extent of damage, and the cause, were still being determined as of July 5 at the hay operation located between Lethbridge and Coaldale. Early estimates indicate up to $5 million in losses.

Dozens of farmers helped fight the massive fire, whose smoke could be seen as far west as the Crowsnest Pass. Flames soared as high as 60 feet from a collection of hay bales about 26 feet tall that filled a large metal building about 400 feet long by 100 feet wide, creating a giant plume of smoke.

In addition to bales, the building held new pelleting equipment and various packaging materials.

“I just want to make sure that I mentioned a huge thank you to the agricultural community,” said Gerrit Sinke, deputy chief of Lethbridge Fire and Emergency Services.

“They all came out with water tanks and many different ways of assistance to our crews, and I would say without the assistance of the agricultural community, the impact could have definitely been far more substantial.”

Sinke said there is no initial indication that the fire had a suspicious origin.

“We’re got the security camera footage of the building. Literally from the time of ignition to the building being fully involved is maybe 20 to 30 seconds.”

One employee was in the building when the fire started at about 7 p.m. and was able to safely escape. Firefighters arrived within about 10 minutes, Sinke said. Crews responded from all five stations in Lethbridge as well as from Coaldale and District Emergency Services.

The fire occurred during an extreme heat wave that blanketed much of Western Canada. New daily maximum temperature records were reported by Environment Canada in 49 communities across Alberta for June 30, including a high of 36.3 C for the Lethbridge area.

“It’s too early to speculate on the cause and origin of this fire, but certainly heat is something that we’re taking into account as a possibility,” said Sinke.

Green Prairie began operation more than 30 years ago as a hay compressor and later expanded by adding dehydration equipment. That addition allowed it to contract and buy alfalfa and timothy from southern Alberta forage growers at up to 45 percent moisture and then dry, process and ship it to overseas customers. Nearly all of its product is exported, much of it to the Middle East and Pacific Rim.

Efforts to fight the massive fire were hindered by motorists who stopped along Highway 3 to watch the blaze, blocking lanes and hindering traffic, said Cpl. Murray Gordon of the Coaldale RCMP. Officers issued tickets to some persistent onlookers.

Water to fight the blaze was drawn from a nearby irrigation canal to supply firefighting equipment ranging from pump units and aerial apparatus to fire engines, said Sinke. Dozens of neighbouring farmers also brought their own equipment, including water tanks, forklifts and booms to move hay bales.

Their actions helped prevent the fire from spreading to millions of dollars worth of nearby inventory and structures owned by the company, including the cubing plant.

Firefighters monitored the site for several days as the remaining hay continued to smolder.

The owner of Green Prairie International Inc. did not respond to requests for an interview by press time.

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