NEWS

Alberta Grass Fires Whipped Up By High Winds In the Snowless South

01/04/2012 04:31 EST | Updated 03/05/2012 05:12 EST
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FORT MACLEOD, Alta. - Grass fires fuelled by high winds and unseasonably dry conditions swept through three rural regions of southern Alberta on Wednesday, leaving behind a swath of charred fields and buildings.

A downed power line sparked a blaze that ravaged a 60-square-kilometre area and destroyed three homes near Nanton, but it and the other blazes had been extinguished by early evening.

"I believe some firemen did suffer some smoke inhalation, but to the general public, no injuries and certainly no deaths, which is a big relief for us," said RCMP Sgt. Patrick Webb.

"When you get these high winds that come along, it's a very dangerous, volatile situation."

Webb said the first fire on Wednesday afternoon started west of the Queen Elizabeth II Highway between Granum and Fort Macleod.

"That fire burned to the east to eventually cross the highway and caused us to have to shut down the highway so that vehicles were not going to get caught in the smoke," said Webb. The highway was later reopened.

The second blaze started near Walsh, Alta., and burned through fields and grassland across the boundary into Saskatchewan.

The third and worst fire then started near Nanton.

"I went out and drove a little ways, but they've got a roadblock up so these guys can get their job done without a bunch of rubbernecks looking at it," said Nanton Mayor John Blake.

"The fire is out, they're just cleaning it up now."

Blake said the community had declared a local state of emergency.

"That enables them to pool their resources and effectively fight the fire as a unit," he said.

Webb said the winds were reported as high as 100 kilometres an hour earlier in the day. By evening, they were forecast to be subsiding, but Webb said you couldn't tell.

"I am sitting in my vehicle right now and it's just being rocked by the wind," he said.

"For this time of year, in January, I don't recall having grassfires, especially to this degree. What we've got is very, very dry conditions and no snowpack and high winds."

Warm temperatures weren't helping. Environment Canada said much of the area reached 15 C on Wednesday.

Webb said the full extent of the damage wouldn't be known until Thursday, but he said besides the houses that burned another dozen buildings may have been destroyed.

Earlier in the day, Cynthia Vizzuti, chief administrative officer with the Municipal District of Willow Creek, said she knew of a feedlot that was in danger of burning.

The call went out to between 100 and 200 households to be on voluntary evacuation alert, though it wasn't known how many people actually left.

Webb said fire departments from surrounding communities such as High River, Okotoks and Stavely all responded to the fires.

"They did an excellent job containing this, we do have to thank those guys for getting out there," he said.

Cypress County fire manager Lutz Perschon said lauded good work by crews, along with help from area Hutterite colonies.

The RCMP said farmers and other civilians also helped out.

In Calgary, city officials issued high wind warnings earlier in the day.

A highway in the city's south was briefly closed due to unsafe conditions from blowing construction material, as was a downtown street, due to worries about an unsecured sign at the BMO building.

Mounties also had to deal with multiple vehicle rollovers caused by gusting winds.