'The most horrific scene': Alberta ranchers take aim at CFB Suffield for grass fire that destroyed livestock

Louise Schlaht called it a terrible scene — over 130 head of cattle dead or dying, burned by an out-of-control grass fire that forced more than 40 people to flee their homes near the southern Alberta hamlet of Bindloss.

Ranchers are exploring legal options after a grass fire they say started on the base spread to their property

Over 100 head of cattle, a farm house and its buildings were destroyed in a grass fire near CFB Suffield on Monday. This is a file photo of the aftermath of a previous grass fire. (Wallace District Fire Department /Facebook)

Louise Schlaht called it a terrible scene — over 130 head of cattle dead or dying, burned by an out-of-control grass fire that forced more than 40 people to flee their homes near the southern Alberta hamlet of Bindloss.

On Monday, the fire swept through a community pasture shared by area ranchers about 250 kilometres east of Calgary. Ranchers say the fire was started by their neighbours at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Suffield.

"The fire came from them and it's been going on like this for years," Schlaht said. "And we're all done with them."

Daryl Swenson, one of the ranchers who lost property in the blaze, said the ranchers are meeting with MLAs and lawyers Thursday to explore their legal options and possibly seek compensation from the military.

"We're just super fed up with the military," Swenson said. "This has been going on for years and years — them letting the grass burn out there, out of control, not letting us to go in there to stop it before it gets serious."

An aerial photo shows acres of burned land, left, after a grass fire near Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Suffield on Monday. Ranchers in the area had to evacuate due to the fire, which they say was started by the military. (Special Areas Board)

The acting commander of CFB Suffield, Maj. Hugh Atwell, confirmed a fire started on the base on Monday as a result of the military detonating "unexploded ordinance." In this case, it was an artillery shell that did not explode when fired.

Atwell said fire investigators are working to confirm whether the fire that destroyed the rancher's property was sparked by the fire on the base.

"Really, the issue is, we absolutely know that we had a fire that started as a result of a military operation on Monday," Atwell said, adding he couldn't "conclusively state" whether the two fires were connected.

"So we're not denying it, what we're waiting for is feedback from fire investigations on both the civilian and military side to provide the clarity as to the cause of damage off base as well as on base," Atwell said.

'They were put out of their misery'

Officials declared a state of emergency on Monday as more than 20 fire trucks, 10 water trucks and other heavy equipment battled the flames with the help of volunteers.

CFB Suffield is owned by the Department of National Defence, but a large portion of the base and training area have been used by the British military since the early '70s.

Swenson says he has no doubt the fire came from that base's training area, which locals call "the British block," because he saw a flames come from the training area toward his house.

Rancher Louise Schlaht said over 130 head of cattle were dead or dying after Monday's grass fire in southern Alberta.

Using a tractor, Swenson overturned soil on his property "so there was nothing to burn." Swenson said the flames stopped less than a kilometre from his home.

"There could have been a lot of people hurt and a lot of stuff saved," an emotional Swenson told the Calgary Eyeopener.

A total of five farms in the area were evacuated as the flames burned Swenson's winter feed for his animals, a full pasture and miles of fence line.

Schlaht said she and her husband have spent the days after the fire looking after an 89-year-old man who lost his home in the blaze and going through the grisly task of putting down their injured animals who "were everything to my husband."

"They we're horribly burned," Schlaht said. "Some were alive, some were dead. So they were put out of their misery and it was the most horrific scene ever."

Investigation continues

Swenson said the ranchers are frustrated because the military does not allow civilians, other than emergency service partners, to come on base or in the training area to help fight fires.

Atwell said that is because there is an "extraordinary level of risk" for civilians to enter the training area.

The base has its own fire crews, and Atwell said some military firefighting resources helped douse the flames that destroyed Swenson's and Schlaht's properties.

Atwell said fire crews from Medicine Hat, Jenner and Cypress County also assisted the military in fighting the fire in the training area.

Maj. Hugh Atwell confirmed a fire started on the CFB Suffield base Monday as a result of the military detonating. Investigators are working to determine whether the fire that started at the base sparked the fire that destroyed the rancher's property.

Military personnel are working to help the ranchers "mitigate the impact of fire damage and assist in recuperation," Atwell said, adding that work will go forward regardless of what the investigations conclude.

As for the ranchers seeking legal action against the military, Atwell said there is a "strong accountability framework" in place should investigators find the two fires were connected.

"There's no desire on the part of anyone here at the base or departmentally to evade reasonability," Atwell said. "If it turns out that the attribution is absolutely to the base, then I think that will be very clear."

With files from Dave Will