Manitoba

Grass fires may have been sparked by train, Winnipeg fire department says

A series of grass fires in Winnipeg on Sunday may have been caused by a train passing through, says a spokesperson for the fire department.

42 fires have taken place in 3 weeks, with several being investigated for possible link to rail activity

An area highlighted by the CBC shows a fire along the railway line next to Wilkes Avenue near Elmhurst Road. A train can be seen passing by in the background in this still taken from surveillance video. (Submitted by John Wheeler)

A series of grass fires in Winnipeg on Sunday may have been caused by a train passing through, says a spokesperson for the fire department.

"We did see a pattern," said Tom Wallace, the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service's deputy chief of support services. "We haven't confirmed that. We do have meetings with CN later this week."

Winnipeg crews battled several fires — some of them severe enough to be deemed wildfires — over the weekend, with a particularly large one on Wilkes Avenue along a railroad track. The fire threatened a seniors' retirement complex and set a fence ablaze.

That fire was preceded by several others at around the same time, Wallace said.

"A fire that started in St. Boniface in the area of Fort Gibraltar, followed shortly thereafter by a fire at The Forks, a fire at the Kenaston Underpass, a fire at Shaftsbury on Wilkes and then a fire further down Wilkes near Elmhurst and Liberty," he said.

Watch as a fire starts on Wilkes Avenue while a train passes by:

A series of fires near train train tracks Sunday are being investigated as possibly being related to rail activity. 2:04

John Wheeler of Hackers and Smackers Driving Range at Wilkes Avenue and Elmhurst Road was fixing nets on his range when a train passed by. He then spotted smoke, he said.

"As soon as [the train] went by, the smoke was instant."

Wheeler and several customers helped prevent the fire from spreading to the range's netting system by using the driving range's irrigation system.

Wheeler caught the start of the fire on a surveillance camera on his property.

"I've seen trains go by sparking before, but not setting fires," he said.

Sparks may fly from brakes or train wheels as they pass over tracks, and they can ignite dry grasses or reeds in ditches or grassland.

Wallace called the conditions around the city "unprecedented and tinder dry."

"I"ve been in emergency services for 20 years and I've never seen anything like this," he said, adding typically during this time of year there's water in the ditches. 

Mitch Jarrett was biking along the Harte Trail — which runs nearly parallel to the Wilkes train tracks — on Sunday when he saw five or six fires along the tracks, every 30 to 40 metres. 

"All along the train tracks, there were fires on both sides," he said, estimating the fires were about five metres away from the tracks. "I never saw the train actually start the fire, but the train went by and as I was coming back, from the west to the east, there were small fires that had started. And as I travelled further and further, moving east, the fires were larger and larger." 

"The flames were really quite high," he said. 

Surveillance video shows a fire starting while a train goes by on Wilkes Avenue. Video courtesy: John Wheeler Hackers & Smackers Driving Range 0:37

CN spokesperson Kate Fenske said trains have sparked fires in the past, so the railway does inspect equipment and review train movements to determine if any mechanical issues are a potential cause. 

"In this case and at this time, we have not identified any specific mechanical issues that would have sparked a fire. CN will continue to investigate equipment and trains movements. Also, CN has issued a bulletin to operating crews reminding them on the proper procedures for fire mitigation during dry conditions like Manitoba is experiencing at this time," she said in an emailed statement. 

Fenske said CN cuts brush along rail lines to reduce fire risks, and trains carry firefighting equipment.

Manitoba under control

Wildfires outside the city are under control, but dry and unusually warm weather forecast for early this week is expected to keep fire crews on their toes.

Despite the dry conditions in the south, Manitoba as a whole has had considerably fewer fires than usual for this time of year. As of May 7, the province had registered just 42 wildfires in 2018, compared to 74 in an average year, according to a Manitoba Sustainable Development spokesperson.

There were 202 and 459 wildfires in Manitoba in all of 2016 and 2015, respectively, according to provincial wildfire records.

Gary Friesen, manager of the wildfire program with Sustainable Development, said so far this year, three wildfires in forested areas outside of Winnipeg are being investigated with possible links to rail activity.

"There's no fires causing issues at this time, but the week is certainly going to be a challenge with the extremely warm temperatures," Friesen said Monday.

"And then you throw wind into that, it's very critical for fires."

Trees smoke in an Eriksdale, Man., barnyard on Sunday afternoon. (Submitted by Rebecca Saunders)

Winnipeg and parts of the south are forecast to get temperatures in the 30 C range with a UV index of six Monday as arid conditions in the city and eastern Manitoba continue to pose fire threats.

Environment Canada says the average high for Winnipeg at this time of year is 17.3 C; the record high for May 7 was set in 1891 at 34.4 C.

Burn bans remain in place in much of the south, including in Winnipeg which is experiencing its driest spring since 1987 and its fourth driest in almost 150 years.

A Manitoba government water bomber flies over the fire near Badger, Man., on May 1. (Manitoba Government)

A spate of wildfires destroyed a few homes and buildings in the Interlake and southeast on April 30. Fires forced the rural municipality of Piney to declare a state of emergency last Monday due to an eight-kilometre-long fire encroaching on the community of Badger, about 115 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg.

The Piney fire is under control but crews continue to monitor it from the skies using infrared cameras and dousing hot spots where necessary, Friesen said.

Provincial waterbombers and crews from out of province pitched in last week to douse fires in the southeast, and Winnipeg fire crews were thrust into the wildfire fight as well. 

Two people died after emergency crews found them badly burned from a fire in Winnipeg's Transcona neighbourhood Friday. That fire remains under investigation.

"All open-air fires are temporarily prohibited due to the extreme dry weather conditions in the Winnipeg area, which increases the risk of dangerous fires, such as grass, brush, and wildfires," the city said in a release.

The rail line fire burned through parts of Winnipeg's Charleswood neighbourhood, along the railway tracks beside Wilkes Avenue and Sterling Lyon Parkway, on Sunday. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said the province's emergency measures organization are working with communities to address fire concerns.

"We are fortunate that spring flooding will be limited this year, but a dry spring has already resulted in a busy wildfire season," Schuler said in a statement.

CBC Manitoba meteorologist John Sauder said a small amount of rain could fall on Winnipeg and parts of southern Manitoba Wednesday night. 

"I think everyone from the forest firefighters to the farmers could really use rain right now," Friesen said.

Red areas indicate regions that are at extreme risk for wildfires. (Natural Resources Canada)

About the Author

Bryce Hoye

Reporter

Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology and interests in courts, social justice, health and more. Story idea? Email bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.

With files from Jillian Coubrough and Elisha Dacey