Grass fire in southern Alberta brought under control

Alberta fire officials say the massive grass fire that erupted on the Blood reserve in the southern part of the province on Monday afternoon has been brought under control.

Evacuation order for Coalhurst lifted at 10:35 p.m. MT

Alberta fire officials say the massive grass fire that erupted on the Blood reserve in the southern part of the province on Monday afternoon has been brought under control.

"The fire is well contained now," said Lethbridge fire Chief Brian Cornforth.

Fire crews are now looking to work overnight to douse hot spots of the estimated 4,800-hectare blaze.

"These folks are working at their maximum," said Cornforth. "You have to recognize the conditions; it's hot, it's high winds, communications are difficult [and] it's very smoky."  

"We're working very, very closely with those crews to make sure they are safe."  

Conforth said at least one person was injured and there is no estimate to the damage caused by the fire yet.  

A state of emergency remains in effect for most of the area, but Lethbridge Mayor Rajko Dodic is cautiously optimistic the worst is past.

Hundreds of people were evacuated from Coalhurst and the Lethbridge area, but officials say most people found a place to stay with friends and family.

Residents also had access to three evacuation centres: the community centre in Picture Butte, the Fritz Sick Centre in Lethbridge and the Lethbridge Enmax building on Scenic Drive.

The evacuation order was lifted for Coalhurst — the town itself and not the surrounding areas — as of 10:35 p.m. MT.

Officials say residents can enter through the north and main entrances.

A separate grass fire near the southern Alberta town of Milk River also forced residents to leave their homes for safety in Raymond.

Next steps

Cornforth says the fire ran through the gap between Coalhurst and Lethbridge, narrowly avoiding both.

"Mother Nature worked in our favour again on this with the high winds, kept the fire front [and] narrow," he said. "The flanks were easy to manage and crews have done a phenomenal job."  

Fire crews from Taber, the Blood reserve, Coalhurst and Picture Butte worked with contractors and City of Lethbridge firefighters to fight the blaze.

"The next several hours will involve us monitoring the fire, keeping it held, working the hot spots on the peripheral," said Cornforth. 

"We'll surround that fire with a fire break and we'll keep working our way into the centre and there won't be hot spots as the wind picks up tomorrow."  

Officials say an aircraft will fly over the area to assess damage and hot spots.   

"You will see flames along the river bottom tonight," said Cornforth. "You still have areas that are burning off, but these are areas that we have contained."   

Heavy smoke

Smoke can be seen in Lethbridge after a grass fire broke out in the area Monday. (Submitted by Jordan Davidson)

Officials said earlier in the day that the smoke in the area was severely reducing visibility and creating hazardous road conditions.

Lethbridge police closed some roads to prevent motorists from driving toward the fire, but Highway 3 and Highway 25 have since reopened.

People were being told to avoid the area and to seek medical attention if they experience breathing difficulties.

Students at schools on the west side of Lethbridge north of Whoop-Up Drive were also sent home early.

It's in the same area where a big fire forced at least 125 people from their homes and destroyed two houses on the reserve last year.