CALGARY - A powerful windstorm ripped through southern Alberta on Sunday smashing windows and downing trees in Calgary and fuelling a grassfire that forced over 100 people from their homes near Lethbridge.
Officials in Lethbridge County, southeast of Calgary, ordered an evacuation in an area just west of Lethbridge due to the raging grassfire.
About 100 people were initially evacuated, but another 25 or so people had to leave their homes Sunday evening ahead of threatening flames.
Lethbridge fire department platoon chief Jesse Kurtz said early Monday that while the fire was under control, it continued to burn.
"It’s not out and we don’t expect it to be out probably until hopefully tomorrow (Monday). It’s gotten into a stand of trees and grass."
Kurtz said the fire jumped the Old Man River after burning through part of the Blood Reserve and was in some bottom land that is not easily accessible.
THE STORM IN PHOTOS AND VIDEO (Story Continues Below Slideshow)
Fiefighters inspect damage after windows blew out and parts of an office tower were taken off by high winds in Calgary, Alberta on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011. A powerful windstorm in Calgary that smashed windows in a highrise office tower has prompted officials to close traffic in the city's downtown, and issue a warning to stay indoors. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry MacDougal)
A police officer turns away a persistent pedestrian from an area in the downtown core damaged by high winds in Calgary, Alberta on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry MacDougal)
Wind gusts of 85-110 km/h in calgary and most of alberta!!! it was very dusty and scary!! :O
Braving the wind and watching the shingles blow off the roof as the wind gusts to 120 kph.
A video from our balcony.
An Extremely windy day in Calgary, at the end of november. its never this windy!!!! well maybe it is.... :)
He said the area still burning is about 6.5 kilometres due west from the centre of Lethbridge and the damage covers about 10 square kilometres.
Kurtz said an evacuation order remains in effect because of unpredictability of the wind.
"If we get the wind shifting direction and it substantially stays that way, we still have potential that these homes would be threatened so we’re maintaining that evacuation order," he said.
"We don’t want to let them back in and then have to pull them out again." I'm optimistic that we’ll be able to let them go home tomorrow (Monday).
Kurtz said firefighters successfully steered the flames away from major structures and the damage has been limited to grass and trees
"We never lost any homes. We did lose some sheds and corrals ... I think there was one small barn that was lost," he said.
Kurtz said the high winds helped firefighters battle the blaze.
"It actually is helping because it did change direction on us, which pushed it back onto itself."
The wind, said Kurtz, was "playing its typical fall and winter tricks where it switches direction literally in seconds."
Lethbridge County Reeve Lorne Hickey said the wind had gusted up to 100 kilometres per hour and RCMP went door-to-door telling people to flee.
Firefighters in Lethbridge also battled a blaze in an industrial building that lost its roof during the wind storm.
In Calgary, traffic in the downtown core was shut down and officials warned residents to stay indoors.
"Right now, there’s just so much stuff falling off buildings that we’re struggling to keep up with calls," Det. Dean Vegso of the Calgary Police said at the height of the storm on Sunday afternoon.
Despite the power of the storm and the extent of the damage, Calgary police said no injuries had been reported.
The city said late Sunday that the downtown core had been re-opened to vehicle traffic except for several blocks where building inspections were still underway and safety remained an issue.
Affected blocks, in the city’s southwest, were also closed to all pedestrian traffic. Commuters were advised to make alternate arrangements for travel to and from the downtown core for the morning rush hour.
The city also advised that residents from the restricted area who are away from home to report to Mewata Armouries for help in getting into their buildings.
"We appreciate Calgarians’ assistance and understanding as we continue to clean up areas and address the needs of affected residents," said Bruce Burrell, the director of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency.
"There are still some pockets of concern and city crews are doing everything we can to ensure the safety and security of Calgarians."
In High River, south of Calgary, residents were told to leave an apartment building after officials said a fire wall had separated from the building.
As the storm approached, the province’s emergency alert system broadcast a warning on radio stations that residents should stay away from windows and watch out for flying debris.
"It’s a lot more severe out in the country where there isn’t anything to block the winds when it’s coming across the fields," said Jillian Millar, who was driving south from Calgary with her husband to pick up their daughter from a party.
"We didn’t realize it was as bad as it was when we left the house," she added.
Millar said farm animals were seeking shelter behind whatever they could find. She said she saw horses huddled beside a parked school bus.
The City of Calgary said several large windows were ripped out of the TD Square office building, and one firefighter working downtown said debris from one building broke off and shattered glass in a neighbouring building.
The firefighter said it was "raining glass" in the area.
Police said some parked cars had also been crushed by trees, but fortunately no one was in them.
Locksmiths were needed to get to some highrise balconies where residents weren’t home, and firefighters feared their barbecues may have been damaged, and possibly leaking gas.
Several crossing arms along Calgary’s light rail system were broken off by wind gusts and the power was knocked out briefly to a number of homes.
RCMP had advised that large vehicles stay off Highway 2 south of Calgary between Nanton and Fort Macleod. They also urged drivers of large vehicles on the Trans-Canada Highway in southeast Alberta to slow down because of the wind.
There were no reports of injuries.
"That’s incredible, really, when you think about it, because we’ve had vehicles crushed by trees," said Duty Inspector Paul Stacey.
Despite police closing traffic to Calgary’s downtown, the owner of a sports bar said football fans were still coming in to watch the Grey Cup.
Charlie Mendelman said he saw the police roadblocks on his way into downtown, but was able to get around them.
"I was born and raised in Calgary, so I know the streets really well," Mendelman said.
Police said it was fortunate the wind storm hit on a Sunday, noting there would have been a lot more people on the streets on a weekday.