Nick Kuhl & Katie May
A wind-wrecked power line is believed to be the culprit of a raging grass fire that forced evacuation of several southern Alberta communities and burned through at least 4,800 hectares around Lethbridge Monday.
Gusting winds snapped a power line in the northwest corner of the Blood Reserve near Old Agency early Monday afternoon — according to a preliminary Blood Tribe Police investigation, said police chief Lee Boyd — sparking a wildfire that jumped Oldman River and spread to areas of west Lethbridge, nearing the town of Coalhurst 10 kilometres away.
Lethbridge fire chief Brian Cornforth updated the situation at Fire Headquarters at 9 p.m. last night and said the fire is well contained.
“We have the fire in a condition of what we call ‘being held,’ meaning the current resources we have on that fire will work on that fire tonight,” he said.
“We don’t believe it’s going to get any larger unless we have erratic fire behaviour or wind change. We have a significant amount of resources on that fire. Crews have done a phenomenal job.”
At 10:30 p.m. the City of Lethbridge adjusted the local state of emergency, originally issued at 3:44 p.m., to apply only to the previously evacuated areas — Westside Trailer Court, Bridgeview Campground, and areas east of 30th Street West and north of Walsh Drive West — which will remain evacuated and under a state of local emergency.
This adjusted state of emergency will continue to allow local fire crews to monitor hot spots, said Lethbridge Mayor Rajko Dodic.
“It’s now being contained as much as possible,” he said late last night. “We’re now cautiously optimistic and hopefully the news in the next number of hours will get better as we go along.”
More than 100 emergency responders from Lethbridge, Coalhurst, Picture Butte, Coaldale, Nobleford and Taber helped battle the blaze.
But with separate fires across Western Canada and near the U.S. border stretching firefighting resources thin, the County of Lethbridge called in water bomber planes from Pincher Creek, expecting five but receiving only two because of other fires raging in B.C. and in the U.S.
“They’ve dropped a couple of drops already and they’re on their way back to Pincher Creek to recharge and they’re coming back,” said County Reeve Lorne Hickey around 8 p.m. Monday. “They’re trying to get the northerly edge of the fire under control so it doesn’t move north toward Coalhurst.”
The water bombers were expected to return from their 40-minute round trip to make their final drop of the night as the sun set over smoky skies in southern Alberta, leaving officials to pray for gentler winds.
“I’m sure they’re getting a little weary about now, but they’re doing a remarkable job,” Hickey said.
“The foam retardant from the water bombers has helped a great deal,” he added. “But we’re just hoping the wind is going to die down a little bit and they can try to get things under control a little better.”
Alberta’s Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk spoke to media late Monday night at the Enmax Centre after a visit to the community centre in Picture Butte, which took in at least 150 displaced Coalhurst residents.
“Families are obviously nervous and distraught because they left properties behind and all of their belongings,” he said.
“But the most important thing is - and that’s always our priority – is saving lives.”
Authorities couldn't confirm any structure loss as of late Monday, but Sustainable Resources Alberta and local investigators will be on scene this morning.
The only injury reported was that of one individual being transported by ambulance from Coalhurst to Chinook Regional Hospital.
“Lives are very precious and we want to make sure that we’re able to take care of the situation,” Hickey said. “That’s why we had an evacuation. When it came close to the river it was definitely time to move on.”
Mountain Meadows and Sunset Acres residents, and those in Township 8-22, were the first with an evacuation notice, followed by a full mandatory evacuation to the town of Coalhurst.
Monday’s fire also reignited flashbacks of a massive grass fire that burned through the region last November, spurred on in the midst of a severe windstorm, and scorched thousands of acres of crops and river bottom land as one of the biggest fires the region had ever seen.
That fire started at a sweatlodge ceremony on the west end of the Blood Reserve around 3:30 p.m. Nov. 27, 2011, spreading quickly in extreme wind gusts reaching more than 100 kilometres per hour, jumping the Old Man River and burning through west Lethbridge right up to city limits at 30 Street West, north of 24 Avenue West.
Two Blood Reserve homes were destroyed in the blaze and no injuries were reported. No charges were laid in connection to that fire.
Coalhurst resident George Bradbury remembers that day.
This time he was more prepared, however, as he has all of his house and car insurance papers, as well as his passport, all in a tin box.
He took that as well as the first family photo album he could find before making his way to the Picture Butte community centre as part of the forced evacuation.
“We were outside working and a neighbour came and told us so we went and grabbed some things before the RCMP came down and told us that we had to leave,” said Bradbury, who has lived in Coalhurst for the past six years.
“The first thought that went through my mind was ‘not again’. And it was coming from the same area.”
Jonathan Moedt just moved to Coalhurst in March. He was on his way home from work in west Lethbridge right after the evacuation notice was issued.
“I was met at the entrance of Coalhurst with fire trucks and police there,” Moedt said.
“They told me I wasn’t allowed into Coalhurst because we were being evacuated.
But Moedt was allowed to go in to get his dog. While he was home he also quickly grabbed his laptop, a change of clothes and personal papers.
“I was told I had between two and five minutes to get back out of town and go to Picture Butte. One of the first things through my head was thinking about Slave Lake two years ago and what could possibly happen.”
Tracie Moore at Canadian Red Cross said initially there were 150 evacuees in Picture Butte, 25 at the Enmax Centre and 15 at Fritz Sick.
Heavy traffic and multiple accidents were reported along Highway 25 between Lethbridge and Picture Butte during the late afternoon and pets were being taken in at the Enmax Centre, but Lethbridge Animal Services couldn’t confirm an official number as of press time.
As of just after 11 p.m. last night there were reports that some residents were being allowed back into Coalhurst.