Smoke from stubble fires engulfs Winnipeg

Police and provincial conservation officers are investigating stubble fires that blanketed Winnipeg in heavy smoke Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

Policeand provincial conservation officers are investigating stubblefires that blanketed Winnipeg in heavy smokeWednesday night andThursday morning.

Farmers to the south of the city were allowed to burn crop residue Wednesday, but the fires were supposed to be out by 8 p.m.

Smokebegan to cloak city streets at about 9 p.m., and parts of the city were still shrouded Thursday morning. In southwest Winnipeg, visibility was so bad that several major streets and highways were closed.

Some Winnipeggers said they had never seen such heavy smoke, which was entering their homes even with the windows closed. Others said they could barely see buildings and houses just down the road.

City fire crews were also kept hopping, responding to more than 40 calls from people who thought something was burning in their neighbourhood.

At least four people were taken to hospital suffering from respiratory problems because of the smoke, fire officials said Thursday.

Tories lay blame at NDP's feet

Provincial Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen, who lives in south Winnipeg, said he received between 40 and 60 calls and e-mails from constituents complaining about the smoke.

McFadyen put the blame on the shoulders of the NDP government, saying the province should not have instituted a complete ban on stubble burning last week, then lifted it.

Why burn stubble?

Burning crop residue is considered a low-cost alternative to tilling, baling or other methods of dealing with the straw, stubble or chaff from any crop, as well as unharvested crops.

Provincial officials say an estimated five per cent of Manitoba farmers burn crop residue.

Some farmers feel it's their only option when grain crops are very heavy or when soil is wet or has a high clay content.

The province lifted a ban on stubble burning Wednesday, a week after the practice was halted in the wake of a five-vehicle collision on the Trans-Canada Highway near Elie that was blamed on an illegal stubble fire. Seven people were injured.

"What I don't think we want is to wake up one morning [and]in response to a single incident, institute a provincewide ban and then panic a week later when you realize the hardship you're creating and reverse it," he said.

"These sort of knee-jerk, incompetent reactions to isolated incidents is the wrong way to govern our province, and we hope that they will take note of the problems that the NDP have created for Winnipeggers and for all Manitobans as a result of their knee-jerk decision making."

Stubble burning is necessary in the Red River Valley and the province should have more consistent controls,McFadyen said.

Provincial Agriculture Minister Rosann Wowchuk said the province has stepped up efforts to crack down on illegal burning by deploying more officers and using aerial surveillance to support environmental officers on the ground.

The province is alsoputting additional information out to farmers to try to encourage them to follow the proper legal burning practices, she said.

Limited burning allowed Wednesday

The provincial government places restrictions onburning of crop residue from Aug. 1 through Nov. 15, permitting burning only in authorized municipalities during certain hours.

Bothered by smoke?
Dr. Margaret Fast, medical officer of health with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, says smoke from crop residue firescan affect people who have asthma or other breathing problems, as well as the very young and very old.

"They should try to avoid exertion," she said. "If you're out and exposed to the smoke— or whatever else that may be in the air out there— and you're having difficulty breathing, stop whatever you're doing."

Fastalso recommended staying indoors, turning off fans and closing windows.

Stubble burning was restricted to the north and west of the city Wednesday night, but was allowed to the south from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Andrew Nadler, an agricultural meteorologist and co-coordinator of the crop residue burning program, said many farmers were eager to start burning again after the temporary ban was lifted Wednesday.

"Maybe because it was closed for a while, there seemed to be maybe this rush," he told CBC News Thursday morning.

"We expected there would be a rush when it was closed for a week, that there's a lot of buildup, and I think farmers were pretty anxious. But it seems to be there was probably some burning that shouldn't have gone on."

Farmer charged

Winnipeg police did issue an offence notice to atleast one personin connection with the fires:Afarmer from the La Salle areawas chargedfor a fire burning in a field inside city limits Wednesday night.

Acting deputy fire chief Bill Clark said the farmer called when he was unable to put his fire out after 8 p.m.

When fire crews went to the field on Loudoun Road, they found smoke so heavy that firefighters had to get out and lead their vehicles along to road to prevent them from driving into the ditches.

There was not much fire crews could do to put out the blaze, he said.

"There was about 300 acres [120 hectares] involved and… the way that the field is tilled to the ditches, we had no way of getting in to extinguish these fires," said Clark.

That fire wasn't the only one causing the smoky condition in the city, Clark said, noting several fires were also burning outside the perimeter.

Police spokesman Sgt. Kelly Dennison was not able to say precisely what the charges were, but said the farmer was charged under a city fire prevention bylaw.

Nadler said it may be difficult to pinpoint whether one farm is responsible for the smoke rolling into the city, but said the province will investigate.

The maximum fine for illegal stubble burning is $50,000.