|Dust obscuring Highway 3|
near Cowley, Jan. 4
Jessica Goodwin photo
- High winds, highway chaos, grassfires, homes and structures destroyed, livestock killed, evacuations, fire truck rolled, firefighters injured, and several communities pull together in the face of disaster.
Wednesday, January 4, 2012 is a day many in southern Alberta will never forget.
Fueled by winds gusting as fast as 120 km/hr, three different grassfires stretched the limits of emergency responders. Two of the fires were in the Municipal District of Willow Creek.
"We had a fire break out north of Fort MacLeod just before noon," said Willow Creek Fire Department CAO Cindy Vizzutti. "It started south of Highway 785, and it burned to Highway 2." At 1:11 pm the MD of Willow Creek Council declared a local state of emergency. "Between 3 and 4 pm we received word that there was a fire burning east of Nanton," Vizzutti continued. "Now we have a fire burning out of control northwest of Fort Macleod, and the grassfire that started south of Nanton, and continuing eastward and northeastward. We had two fires burning in the MD, 50 miles apart. Now you see why needed our neighbours and our friends. They came running."
In rural Alberta, emergencies like this have a tendency to bring out the best in a community, and this time was no exception. Help poured in from everywhere.
"Nanton Fire Department went with what they had, and they called mutual aid from the north and from the east," Vizzutti continued. We had 13 fire departments respond at last count, I have to check those numbers, and do not want to mention them individually at this time, as I do not want to miss anyone."
Among those responding to the crises were 10 Hutterian Brethren Colonies, private water haulers, MD employees, graders, water haulers, all the MD fire departments, all the towns' fire departments, rate-payers, farmers, and ranchers with discers and tractors. Farmers and ranchers were also helping with the fire fighting.
"We worked with all the mutual aid afforded to us in the south," Vizzutti explained. The Hutterian Brethren not only showed up with all of their manpower, water trucks, and equipment, at both fires, but the ladies also showed up with food for all the firefighters. The Town of Ft. MacLeod and the Town of Claresholm established reception centers in their community halls, because we evacuated approximately 25 people, and gave evacuation notices to approximately 100 more. We did not know how bad it could be, and we wanted to be ready in case we would need to continue the evacuations."
The fire in the Fort Macleod area was brought under control between 5 and 6 pm. The Nanton fire effort ended a little later than that, according to Vizzutti.
"Fire fighters were out until 3 am, putting out hot spots," she continued. "Another fire got away in the night, crossed Highway 2 and burned a dairy barn down, so they were working until noon today."
The MD of Willow Creek Council terminated the state of emergency at 10:16 am the day after the fires started, Thursday, January 5. In Fort Macleod, fire and emergency services stood down at approximately 1:30 Thursday afternoon, more than 24 hours after the fire there started. The Nanton fire department was still checking hot spots at 4:30 pm on Thursday.
The Fort Macleod area fire was 6 to 7 miles long, spreading from Highway 785 to Highway 2. The Nanton area fire burned a path 6 miles long east of Highway 2 to the northeast portion just east of Nanton, and covered an approximately 60 km square area. The warm weather and a lack of snowfall has rendered the grass in southern Alberta dry and very susceptible to fire. Coupled with the high winds the fires spread quickly.
"A significant amount of farmland was lost, between 30 to 35 structures, including shops, barns, corrals, sheds, and 4 homes east of Nanton," Vizzutti said.
"At this point we are working with the different agencies, and the towns are stepping up their relief efforts, and we will be working with Alberta Emergency Management Agency, and insurance companies. The investigation is ongoing. On the 6th, the EMS manager will meet with the Fire Commissioner to completely investigate points of origin. At this point we believe the one by Ft. MacLeod may have been the result of improperly disposed of ashes, and the Nanton fire may have started from a downed power line."
Vizzutti described the weather conditions responders had to deal with. "The wind was horrendous," she said. "Absolutely horrible. We had a fire truck rolled, because of the wind."
Two fire men were injured during this catastrophic day. One was treated and released, one is being held under observation in Calgary, with non-life threatening injuries. Two other fire fighters were treated for smoke inhalation, with one of those men also being treated for exertion. Another fighter suffered a twisted ankle.
"We are pleased that none of these injuries were serious, and that no rate payers were injured," Vizzutti said. "The Fire Departments did an unbelievable job. They have constant and continual training, and we are very lucky to have these people."
The Paradise Hill Tomato Farm east of Nanton suffered extensive damage, including the loss of two horses and a sheep. "At this point, that is the only livestock that has been reported," said Vizzutti.
Five residences near Nanton were destroyed by the fire.
Highway #2 was closed to northbound and southbound traffic between Fort Macleod and Nanton for approximately 4 hours due to several rollovers, the heavy smoke from the fires, and the potential safety hazards to the public. It was reopened around 5:00 pm.
Pincher Creek Fire Chief Dave Cox happened to be in the area when the fire broke out and assisted for part of the afternoon before having to return to Pincher Creek to perform his duties here.
To help with relief efforts you can contact the Nanton Ministerial Association, and Fort Macleod service clubs will be holding a benefit. More details can be found from the individual town offices as things become organized.
Across the border in Browning, Montana, another grassfire at the same time as those in Alberta, sparked by a downed electrical line, was reported to have burned about 6,000 acres before being suppressed.
Closer to home, high winds also pummeled the Pincher Creek area, making outdoor activity difficult and highway driving dangerous. In several places blowing dust seriously limited visibility on Highway 3 and other roadways.
Note: correction made: Cindy Vizzutti is the CAO of the Willow Creek Fire Department, not the MD of Willow Creek as originally reported. Farmers and ranchers also helped with the fire fighting.