LETHBRIDGE, Alta. - Fire crews doused hot-spots while hundreds of residents returned to their homes less than 24 hours after fleeing from wind-whipped grass fires in southern Alberta.
"Things are safe for the public," Brian Cornforth, fire chief for the city of Lethbridge, said Tuesday.
All states of emergency have been lifted but fire crews were on standby in case of any flare-ups. Residents found their homes still standing, although some reported heavy smoke damage. Some outbuildings and sheds were destroyed in the blaze, but no houses. Only one fire-related injury was reported.
One fire started on the Blood reserve, possibly by a downed power line, and flames raced across dry fields towards the town of Coalhurst and Lethbridge.
About 2,200 residents of Coalhurst were ordered to leave, as well as countless more in Lethbridge County and a trailer park in northwest Lethbridge.
Another 850 residents of the town of Milk River, southeast of Lethbridge, had to flee another massive grass fire.
Late Monday, residents of Coalhurst were allowed to go home, and on Tuesday morning, Milk River residents got the all-clear to go home.
Les Big Swallow lives on the Blood reserve. The inferno swallowed his hay field, burning a few hundred bales and his barn. His house, just a few metres away, was left untouched.
He works with Blood Tribe Public Works and spent a lot of Monday afternoon trying to build fireguards.
But he said the wind was swirling so fast it was difficult to keep up and at one point he had to drive his truck through a fence just to get out of the way, damaging his vehicle.
On Tuesday, there were a lot of downed power lines, burned fence posts, scorched land and damaged out-buildings and vehicles.
Chief Charles Weaselhead says about a dozen homes suffered significant smoke damage.
The fire near Lethbridge took out more than 50 square kilometres of land, said Cornforth.
"The fire ground speed was estimated to be at 140 metres per minute, so that's a fast-moving fire."
The fire chief said the co-ordination between local fire crews and provincial agencies was "absolutely phenomenal" and he thanked the public for co-operating.
But there were some who apparently weren't so co-operative. Three men have been charged with refusing to leave an evacuated area.
Lethbridge police were blocking roads on Monday when they were confronted by a group of four men who had already been asked several times to leave.
The men refused and were arrested for obstruction.
One man was co-operative, but police say the others resisted and a police officer was hit in the back of the head with a broomstick while another was kicked in the face.
Fred Watmough, 65, has been charged with assaulting a peace officer, assaulting a peace officer with a weapon, resisting arrest and obstructing a peace officer.
Kevin Watmough, 30, and Allan Watmough, 28, have each been charged with obstructing a peace officer and resisting arrest.
Meanwhile, municipal and provincial officials were in the area Tuesday.
Lethbridge Mayor Rajko Dodic and County Reeve Lorne Hickey surveyed the damage from the air.
"What we saw was a tremendous amount of damage to crop land and it went across the river and there's some buildings and structure damage in the river bottom," Hickey said.
"The river bottom has a lot of cottonwoods in it and they're still smouldering and smoking. It was amazing to see how the fire come over to Highway 3."
Dodic said the fire actually jumped Highway 3 in one area, but luckily it didn't go beyond that.
Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths said there is no damage estimate yet as the situation will be assessed in the days ahead, but he did note several farmers did lose crops in the massive blaze.
Griffiths, speaking from Lethbridge’s downtown fire hall following an aerial tour of the scorched scene, commended the efforts of more than 100 firefighters from 10 different departments across the province, as well as police officers and Sustainable Resource Development officials involved in battling the blaze.
“Flying over, it was impressive to see that there were homes saved even though the fire obviously went right around, and that’s just a tribute to the fantastic, hardworking ground crews who managed to save a lot of property and make sure that nobody was killed in this incident,” he said.
Fortis Alberta crews continued working to restore electricity, with close to 50 power poles going up in flames on Monday.
The blaze near Milk River started near Del Bonita and came within six kilometres of the town, said Mayor Terry Michaelis.
The Canadian Red Cross provided help to 379 individuals at three reception centres Monday night when thousands were evacuated.
Red Cross provided lodging, food, clothing, blankets and hygiene kits to people as they waited to hear when they could return home.
(Lethbridge Herald, CJOC, CHQR, The Canadian Press)
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