Tuesday, 29 November 2011 09:55

‘30-foot wall of fire’ ravages County of Warner

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By Delon Shurtz
Southern Alberta Newspapers
Southern Alberta
In the midst of miles and miles of charred trees, grass and stubble, two farm houses in the County of Warner sit unscathed; an island surrounded by a sea of angry black.
It’s like a Christmas miracle, if such it can be called when thousands of acres of farmland and prairie are burned bare from a ferocious fire that swept across the south, pushed by powerful winds that uprooted trees and knocked over semi trucks.

“It was just amazing how fast it was going,” said County Reeve Ross Ford who, with Lethbridge Conservative MP Jim Hillyer, surveyed damages Nov. 28.

As they assessed the damage caused by the fire on Nov. 27 that swept south of Magrath and Raymond, they came across two farm houses directly in the fire’s path, yet the fire went around them leaving an expansive swath of blackened earth.

“It’s a miracle,” Hillyer said. “The fire came so close to these houses.”

Not knowing exactly what to expect when the Raymond fire department responded about 3 p.m. last Sunday, Fire Chief Charlie Holt was shocked when he drove over a coulee hill along the Milk River Ridge to see a 30-foot wall of fire hurtling toward him. He took one look and ordered firefighters to get away. When the fire reached a fire break plowed in its path, it jumped over it like it didn’t exist.

“When the fire came over that hill, I never saw anything like that in my life,” Holt said. “It looked like a river of lava, but it was fire.”

The fire was moving fast, hitting speeds, Holt estimates, of more than 100 kilometres an hour.

Knowing there was no way to fight the fire in the coulees, hundreds of firefighters, farmers, and hutterites waged their war on farmland where they used large tractors with blades, road graders and other equipment to plow a fire break well ahead of the fire. Then they started a back fire and and waited with water and equipment for the massive blaze to reach them.

After 13 hours of hot, desperate work, firefighters finally brought the fire under control about 3:30 a.m. Nov. 28 several kilometres south of New Dayton. Work continued throughout the day, however, as crews monitored hotspots and watched for flareups.

Holt said even though some homes were evacuated, none were caught in the fire. One hutterite colony was put on alert, but it remained out of harms way, as well. Despite the potential for injuries, no one was hurt.

There wasn’t even any livestock lost.

The fire burned along the edges of the Knight Ranch, as well, but no buildings were caught in its path and livestock were safely moved away.

The fire started near Highway 62 just north of Del Bonita on the U.S. border then passed through the McIntyre Ranch and continued northeast until it was finally contained south of New Dayton.

At one point, when the wind shifted, it looked like the fire was going to hit New Dayton and an evacuation was ordered, but before anyone could leave, the fire headed away from the tiny community and the order was lifted. The fire also threatened the Sunny Side Hutterite Colony west of Warner, but it was stopped just before reaching it.

From his Raymond home Hillyer could see the fire several kilometres to the south as it burned toward the northeast. When the wind shifted and it looked like the fire would head toward town, he began gathering a few items in case residents had to evacuate.

Fire departments from Coutts, Milk River, Stirling, Magrath, Raymond, the County of Warner, M.D. of Cardston and even Sunburst, Mont., helped fight the blaze, which could be seen from miles away and sent billows of grey smoke into the air. The Lethbridge and Coaldale fire departments also offered to help, but most of their equipment and manpower were busy fighting a fire which started on the Blood Reserve and threatened to engulf a large area of the west side where residents were preparing to evacuate.

The cause of both fires is still under investigation.

Hillyer said because the fire wasn’t as expansive as he thought it would be, and didn’t cause the kind of destruction he feared, the federal government’s assistance may not be required. However, Jason Kenney, member of Parliament for Calgary Southeast and regional minister for southern Alberta, said in a news release the government is prepared to assist provincial authorities as they clean up after the destructive forces of the wind storm.

Ross, who called a state of emergency in the County of Warner, said an assessment would need to be completed before he knew the extent of damages from the fire, but he anticipated there would be costs, with which he hopes the provincial government will assist.

“Hopefully the province will step in with some money.”

He said damages would have been far worse if not for the tireless work of firefighters and volunteers.

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