Wildfires sweep across southern Alberta

One residence was destroyed and several other homesteads affected after fires burned more than 15,000 acres of land

Things to be thankful for in southern Alberta on March 29: snow, emergency services, good neighbours, no loss of life.

Those were on Josh Fankhauser’s list after grass fires burned more than 15,000 acres of land in the Claresholm, Fort Macleod, Stavely and Blood Reserve regions of the province.

Whipped by winds in the 100 to 140 km-h range, several fires wreaked havoc in separate events that started after noon March 28 and were largely controlled about 12 hours later.

Fankhauser, who farms east of Claresholm, said the fire in his area kissed the corner of his house and burned the trees around the yard. It melted the windows at his parents’ house a short distance away and destroyed stubble, grassland, fences and grain bags.

As of Western Producer deadline on March 29, RCMP confirmed one residence was destroyed and several other homesteads were affected. Details were sketchy as farmers regrouped and investigations began.

The Claresholm-area fire forced evacuation of the village of Carmangay, 35 kilometres east, but shifting wind and the arrival of a cold front with snow prevented the blaze from getting that far.

A different fire on the Blood Reserve, west of Lethbridge, forced evacuation of about 15 homes, with some residents taking temporary shelter in the community of Standoff. The fire there ran an estimated 28 km east from its source, over a width of six km, before being contained around 8 p.m. March 28, according to Blood Tribe fire chief Jacen Abrey.

It was a wild day for fire departments and RCMP throughout the south. Winds caused at least three semi-trucks to flip, one of which blocked half of busy Highway 2 for a time. A number of secondary highways were also closed during the fires due to smoke and fire danger. Temporary closures may also have helped limit what proved to be a considerable amount of onlooker traffic that in some cases hindered emergency personnel, according to anecdotal reports.

Fankhauser said the efforts of friends and neighbours prevented greater damage to homes and buildings.

“Everybody just went above and beyond,” he said. “I’m really glad we have such good neighbours.”

The Claresholm area fire may have started when a power pole blew down in high winds. However, Sergeant Jason Cann of the Claresholm RCMP said an investigation was underway and did not confirm that source. No information was available at press time regarding fire source on the reserve.

Fankhauser wasn’t at home when he got news of the blaze. He began building a firebreak around neighbours’ land while other farmers and friends did the same at his property. Emergency personnel, other farmers and a big response from Hutterite colonies, with equipment and water trucks, were all in involved in the fight.

Fire departments from neighbouring communities responded through mutual aid agreements devised for circumstances like this, said Municipal District of Willow Creek councillor Ian Sundquist.

Sundquist went to the district’s emergency command centre and relayed information during the event.

“I think there were four houses damaged altogether and one that was completely destroyed, and there were several outbuildings that were burned but we were very lucky as far as the residences.”

The town of Claresholm set up an evacuation centre in the community hall and Roy’s Place restaurant delivered 150 meals to firefighters in a staging area later in the day.

“Farmers were getting ready for spring so many were hooked up to their discs and implements so they were readily available to come and help. We (the district) had all our graders out, of course. And the colonies are always there when you need them for fire suppression. The co-operation was so great,” said Sundquist.

Grain bins, grain bags and miles of fence were destroyed by fire and by fire control efforts. Some irrigation pivots were also damaged. There were no reports of livestock loss.

Kevin Auch, who farms west of Carmangay, saw the smoke billowing toward his farm on the afternoon of March 28 and headed west to a neighbour’s place to offer assistance.

“I farm the land right around him, so I jumped on my tractor and hooked up my disc and went up there, but of course I’m no-till so my disc is old. It did more work in that hour than what it has in the last 20,” Auch said with a laugh.

The fire did not reach his neighbour’s place or his own.

Auch was surprised about the evacuation of Carmangay, but it might have been through caution because the village’s 112-year-old Grange Hotel had burned down the previous night, damaging several surrounding buildings.

A largely open winter with little snow created dry conditions across southern Alberta.

With soil now further exposed by the ravages of fire, erosion will be the next concern. The region is at least two weeks away from planting so it will be awhile until crops can be planted and roots can grasp the soil.

Dirt and ash, mixed with snow that fell in the early morning of March 29, were already blowing in continuing winds of 80 to 90 km-h.

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