Wildfire assistance plan in works

Several rural municipalities that experienced wildfire damage this fall plan to discuss options for assistance at this week’s Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties meeting in Edmonton.

Fires around Bindloss, Acadia Valley, Hilda and Schuler caused extensive damage to grassland, fences, farmsteads and stored feed and killed several hundred head of cattle.

Cypress County Reeve Richard Oster said Nov. 13 that meetings were planned with Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier and Municipal Affairs Minister Shaye Anderson to discuss the matter.

“We want the doors open,” said Oster.

“We haven’t had any specific requests from the farmers and ranchers in that Hilda-Schuler area. They’re doing lists and seeing what they have and don’t have, and what they had insurance on, plus all the deductibles… and so when they get all that information, then we’re going to analyze it.”

He said Cypress County plans to confer with the Municipal District of Acadia, which suffered a major grass fire and related losses on the same day last month.

Carlier said Nov. 7 that Agriculture Financial Services Corp. has been asked to see what assistance can be rendered within existing programs, including AgriStability and AgriInsurance.

“I have been in contact with producers in the area, and municipal affairs has been working with municipalities to assess damages. However, at this time, the situation does not meet the threshold that we normally use for declaring agricultural disasters. Normally, this is reserved for widespread loss from an uninsurable event,” Carlier said in an email.

The MD of Acadia was scheduled to participate in meetings with the ministers later this week, said Brent Williams, chief administrative officer for the municipality.

“We’re hoping to get some answers from them with regard to the province’s willingness to assist private landowners affected by this, and not just for the MD of Acadia but across southern Alberta.”

Williams said fire is an insurable loss but given that the blaze in the MD of Acadia resulted from extreme high winds and a fallen electrical pole, some additional assistance is warranted.

The MD of Acadia has asked ATCO, the electrical utility, for more information about the age of power poles in the municipality, their maintenance schedule and the poles’ safety in the event of 120 km-h winds, such as those experienced Oct. 17.

ATCO acknowledged in a Nov. 3 letter to the district that one of its downed poles started the fire that burned more than 70,000 acres and destroyed farm and ranch property.

The letter said eight transmission structures and more than 45 distribution structures were damaged by wind. However, it also said “ATCO does not assume responsibility for any damage resulting from this weather event.”

That conclusion and the tone of the letter led Williams to request further information from ATCO, noting “ATCO’s lack of communication since this event on Oct. 17 is unfortunate, as is the complete absence of meaningful contact with the community or with the affected property owners or with the dozens of first responders that risked their lives trying to battle a wildfire that ATCO’s infrastructure played a role in igniting.”

Williams said he later received a call from ATCO senior vice-president Paul Goguen promising more information.

As for the Hilda fire, its cause is still under investigation. Ashes from a rural property fire pit may have started it but that has not been confirmed.

An early November snowfall put an end to widespread soil drifting, said Oster.

Snow also slightly improved the mental health of those dealing with the aftermath.

“It’s funny how healing that was,” said Jennifer Beck, who helped organize a community supper and information session in Hilda Nov. 9. “Now we can’t see the scars.”

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