Grass fire damage surveyed in southern Alberta
Gale-force Chinook winds sped flames across the tinder-box dry prairie farmland
Officials and residents are beginning to pick up the pieces and survey the damage done by three large grass fires that left wide swaths of scorched earth in southern Alberta Wednesday.
Winds as strong as 117 kilometres an hour fed one fire that was sparked by a downed power line south of Nanton, which is 90 kilometres south of Calgary. The fire is now considered to be extinguished.
As the flames spread eastward, residents of 25 houses were warned they might have to leave.
Five homes were lost to the flames, along with at least seven buildings and several vehicles.
About 60 kilometres farther south, firefighters battled a fast-moving fire between the towns of Granum and Fort Macleod.
Up to 200 people were affected by evacuation warnings and orders.
Final damages have not yet been tallied, but at this point 15 structures were damaged or destroyed — including barns and a greenhouse.
Sandy Hester was an eight-minute drive away from her home where she runs an equestrian business when staff called to say the fire was at their doorstep. She hurried back, made some calls and people arrived with horse trailers.
"People, neighbours, strangers — everyone is so amazing," she said. "It just it really helped."
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Once the horses were safely gone the fire swept in.
"My riding arena, the stallion barns, the sheds, the runs, the heated barns, all my hay and food, which insurance doesn't cover, everything, my office, all gone," she said.
The family home was mostly untouched. Hester says for now the horses have been parcelled out to five farms.
She said insurance doesn't cover much, but they are planning to rebuild. In the meantime, people are donating hay and feed, which is in short supply in southern Alberta.
Fort Macleod Mayor Shawn Patience said while there was a tremendous loss of property, he credits firefighters for their hard work.
"This could have been a serious, serious calamity," said Patience. "The fact that we haven't lost any human lives is really a testament to the work that our crews did."
Robin Daniels was one of many evacuees who lives near the fire north of Fort Macleod. She tried to return to rescue the family pets Wednesday night, but wasn't allowed back until Thursday morning. There is no word yet on the welfare of her animals.
One area resident told CBC News he and his son tried to keep a neighbour’s barn from burning down.
They used hockey sticks and shovels from the back of their truck to beat back the flames, but the fire was spreading too fast, he said.
The fire was contained by nightfall, but crews worked until morning to monitor the flames and put out hot spots.
Highway 2 was closed for several hours as the gale-strength winds blew vehicles into the ditches.
Three firefighters suffered non-life-threatening injuries while battling the flames.
The Municipal District of Willow Creek declared a state of emergency, which has since been lifted.
A third large grass fire raged along the Alberta-Saskatchewan border near Walsh, about 345 kilometres southeast of Calgary.