Thursday, 05 January 2012 08:48

Wildfire disaster averted in southwest Alberta Wednesday

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By Katie May & Caroline Zentner
Lethbridge Herald

The grassfire that raged northwest of Fort Macleod Wednesday afternoon appeared to be under control by evening after threatening homes and property for five hours.

"There are still burning spots that they are still trying to douse; they'll have crews there all night to ensure there's no flare-ups," said Fort Macleod Mayor Shawn Patience around 5:30 p.m. after he had spoken to Cynthia Vizzutti, deputy director of emergency management for the Municipal District of Willow Creek.

"I've been told some of the properties that were in jeopardy may have lost outbuildings and shops but there are still homes standing which is obviously very good for those families that are involved," Patience said.

The grass fire started about eight kilometres west of Highway 2 and north of Hwy 785 but fierce winds whipped up the blaze and sent it eastward, forcing the closure of Highway 2 south of Granum.

Some residents in the MD of Willow Creek were evacuated, with those living north of the fire directed to the Claresholm Community Centre and those living south of the fire to the Fort Macleod Community Hall.

"We've lost two structures, we have a feed lot threatened, we're presently loading cattle and we have everything on scene that we can possibly get on scene," Vizzutti said earlier in the afternoon.

As of 3:45 p.m. Wednesday, three evacuees were at the centre in Fort Macleod. Town officials expected most of those evacuated would have gone north to Claresholm or to friends and family living in the area.

By 7:30 p.m. Wednesday evening evacuees had left the Fort Macleod Community Hall but Patience said not everyone was allowed to return home. Firefighters were still dealing with some structural fires.

Lethbridge resident Ric Swihart was told to evacuate his farm property just outside of Fort Macleod. In its notification to residents, the MD of Willow Creek said the fire had jumped to the east side of Highway 2.

"We're on the south side of the Old Man River, which is quite a wide span, but that other big fire recently, it crossed the river," he said. "We have a stubble field at the west-end of our place, so if that ever caught fire or the neighbour's grass caught fire, it could be dangerous. But of course now with the evacuation, we're not about to go and drive out there and find out what's going on.

"Hopefully it's not somebody who has deliberately set it, that's for sure."

Police officers from the nearby town of Fort Macleod rushed to the scene as the fire sparked amid dry, windy conditions Wednesday around noon. Traffic was diverted down Highway 519 and officers asked residents to avoid the area. RCMP also dealt with multiple semi-truck roll-overs as a result of the high winds.

Firefighting crews, with help from neighbours and others living in the area, from the County of Lethbridge, the City of Lethbridge, Granum, Nanton, Stavely and Pincher Creek responded to the fire. No injuries were reported and Highway 2 was closed until about 5 p.m. The cause is still under investigation by Fort Macleod RCMP, the MD of Willow Creek fire department and the Alberta Fire Commission.

Meanwhile, emergency crews were also working to put out another fire east of Nanton, where police and firefighters had been on scene since 1 p.m., according to an official at the Nanton RCMP detachment, who did not have information on the size of that fire.

The City of Lethbridge has issued a fire ban on all open fires in the river valley, excluding in the fire pit at Elks Compound, in the stoves at the John Martin Centre and at private residences. A fire ban is also in effect for the County of Lethbridge until further notice.

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