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Massive grass fire under control in Alberta


Smoke billows from the fire burning near west Lethbridge
Smoke billows from the fire burning near west Lethbridge

The Canadian Press

September 11, 2012 — Firefighters gain control of grass fires in southern Alberta; evacuees home.

Another view from Lethbridge
Another view from Lethbridge

Fire crews doused hot-spots while hundreds of residents returned to their homes less than 24 hours after fleeing from wind-whipped grass fires in southern Alberta.

"Things are safe for the public," Brian Cornforth, fire chief for the city of Lethbridge, said Tuesday. 

All states of emergency have been lifted but fire crews were on standby in case of any flare-ups. 

One fire started Monday on the Blood reserve, possibly by a downed power line, and flames raced across dry fields towards the town of Coalhurst and Lethbridge. About 2,200 residents of Coalhurst were ordered to leave, as well as countless more in Lethbridge County and a trailer park in northwest Lethbridge. Another 850 residents of the town of Milk River, southeast of Lethbridge, had to flee another massive grass fire. 

Late Monday, residents of Coalhurst were allowed to go home, and on Tuesday morning, Milk River residents got the all-clear to go home. 

Les Big Swallow lives on the Blood reserve. The inferno swallowed his hay field, burning a few hundred bales and his barn. His house, just a few metres away, was left untouched. 

He works with Blood Tribe Public Works and spent a lot of Monday afternoon trying to build fireguards. But he said the wind was swirling so fast it was difficult to keep up and at one point he had to drive his truck through a fence just to get out of the way, damaging his vehicle.

Fire nears Lethbridge
Fire nears Lethbridge

On Tuesday, there were a lot of downed power lines, burned fence posts, scorched land and damaged out-buildings and vehicles. Chief Charles Weaselhead says about a dozen homes suffered significant smoke damage. 

The fire near Lethbridge took out more than 50 square kilometres of land, said Cornforth. "The fire ground speed was estimated to be at 140 metres per minute, so that's a fast-moving fire." 

The fire chief said the co-ordination between local fire crews and provincial agencies was "absolutely phenomenal" and he thanked the public for co-operating. He said if residents see a flare-up, they should call 911 right away. 

Lethbridge Mayor Rajko Dodic and County Reeve Lorne Hickey surveyed the damage by air Tuesday morning. 

"What we saw was a tremendous amount of damage to crop land and it went across the river and there's some buildings and structure damage in the river bottom," Hickey said. "The river bottom has a lot of cottonwoods in it and they're still smouldering and smoking.

It was amazing to see how the fire come over to Highway 3." 

Dodic said the fire actually jumped Highway 3 in one area, but luckily it didn't go beyond that. Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths was in Lethbridge as well on Tuesday. He says there is no damage estimate yet as the situation will be assessed in the days ahead, but he did note several farmers did lose crops in the massive blaze. 

Fortis Alberta crews continued working to restore electricity, with close to 50 power poles going up in flames on Monday. The blaze near Milk River started near Del Bonita and came within six kilometres of the town, said Mayor Terry Michaelis. 

The Canadian Press

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