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Wind whips grass fire into west Coleman

Tuesday, 24 October 2017. Posted in Shootin' the Breeze

Wind whips grass fire into west Coleman
The Coleman fire, which ignited during high winds last Tuesday afternoon, burned about 100 hectares just west of Crowsnest Pass. This aerial shot, taken Friday afternoon, gives an overview of the affected area. No homes were lost but Crowsnest Pass fire chief Jesse Fox says three locations suffered property loss including a large barn, outbuildings and sheds and damage to vinyl siding. Please see ShootinTheBreeze on Facebook for more pictures.   Photos by Shannon Robison         

Wind whips grass fire into west Coleman

By Shannon Robison

Last Tuesday, winds gusting up to 130 kilometres per hour caused havoc as grass fires ignited and spread across southern Alberta.

Crowsnest Pass Fire/Rescue was dispatched first to a grass fire that ignited on 15th Avenue, near the Bushtown area of Coleman, at 12:37 p.m.

Fire Chief Jesse Fox says they maintained positive control and were able to contain it despite the high winds. It was of significant concern due to a grass line that could have led the fire directly into Blairmore.

As firefighters were wrapping up, another call was received, to deal with a tree downed on a power line in Blairmore. These concurrent calls kept them busy until about 3:30.

At the same time, reports were coming in through 310-FIRE and 911, alerting crews to a large fire burning two to three kilometres west of Coleman in the Sentinel Industrial Park area.

Chief Fox says he’d never seen such explosive growth on a grass fire, all moving one direction — in the direction of the community.

“It was our worst scenario,” he adds.

With a large portion of the department already doing active fire operations, response was swift. Alberta Wildfire crews had also been on-site to assist with the earlier fires and were able to act quickly upon receiving the call.

When Chief Fox arrived in west Coleman, the magnitude of the smoke indicated the significance of the fire. From an elevated point of view, he could see that growth was substantial.

Travis Fairweather, information officer for Alberta Wildfire, says the fire spread at a rate of 60 metres per second. It was moving rapidly toward west Coleman.

A mandatory evacuation order was issued through Alberta Emergency Alert at 4:24 p.m. for residents of Willow Drive, McLaren Ridge, Carbondale Trailer Court and MacGillivray Flats. Highway 3 was closed at Flumerfelt Park.

The Municipality of Crowsnest Pass declared a local state of emergency at 5:43. Mayor Blair Painter says about 130 to 150 people were evacuated and that the state of emergency enabled additional support by bringing in the Alberta Emergency Management Agency.

Communications were hampered somewhat by a power outage that covered almost the entire municipality.

“It caused grief on all levels,” Chief Fox says. It severely affected radio communications and emergency crews had to resort to using cellphones. The outage also created problems for emergency vehicles in need of fuel.

“There were hiccups, but we pressed through that and made it work,” he says.

An emergency co-ordination centre was set up at Frank Slide Interpretive Centre and a unified command was established between multiple agencies.

“Removal of any one of them would have rendered us ineffective,” says Chief Fox.

With the entire municipality under threat, an evacuation reception centre was established at Pincher Creek’s Vertical Church.

Mutual aid came from Pincher Creek Emergency Services and Lundbreck Fire Department.

A call also went out for volunteers with previous firefighting experience in Crowsnest Pass. “Many stepped up and helped and for that we are grateful,” says Chief Fox.

Firefighting efforts kicked into high gear as RCMP assisted with the evacuation. Chief Fox says there were no problems with compliance.

At a town hall meeting a month earlier, residents in attendance were told what an evacuation process would look like. At the time, the Kenow fire was burning in Waterton and Chief Fox stressed that no one would be left behind.

Recognizing that not everyone has technology at their fingertips, he made it known that, in the event of an evacuation, RCMP officers would stop at every door.

With the Kenow event, people became hypersensitive to the real threat of a wildfire, Chief Fox says, and this may have had a positive impact on the evacuation response last week.

While the blasting wind posed challenges, rain began to fall late Tuesday afternoon. At times it was blown sideways, but every drop was welcome.

Chief Fox says efforts were concentrated on holding the fire to a determined line. As incident commander, he was responsible for providing strategic direction.

From a vantage point in downtown Coleman, an eerie orange glow shone from behind the rocks around supper time.

FortisAlberta crews worked through the night to restore power, and by late morning on Wednesday, lights were back on for most residents.

At 1:30 p.m. the highway was reopened and at 3:45, Willow Drive residents were allowed home. The balance of the evacuees were allowed 15-minute escorted visits to their homes Wednesday evening.

Fire suppression activities continued throughout the day and night as the fire lingered and hot spots remained. Crews worked on the ground and multiple helicopters bucketed water onto the area.

Winds did not reach anticipated speeds and rain fell most of the night, allowing crews to establish containment guards.

By Thursday morning the fire was classified as being held and all evacuation orders were rescinded. The local state of emergency was lifted at 7 p.m.

At 10 a.m. Friday the Coleman fire was declared under control.

Chief Fox says the Alberta Emergency Alert messages “couldn’t have been faster.”

Tim Trytten, AEA team lead for the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, says issues were identified during the Kenow fire and have been addressed.

Last Tuesday was a very busy day for AEA, with 32 alerts issued. Five were considered critical, utilizing all available channels.

Those using Android versions of the AEA app received messages in 1.31 minutes while Apple users received theirs, on average, in 2.33 minutes — well below the five-minute target.

Mr. Trytten recommends having as many communication pathways into your home as possible — radio, TV, social media and the AEA app and social media channels.

In total, 2.8 million messages were issued in one day, and he is very pleased with how things went.

“The system worked very well,” he says. “We got the message out.”

About 148,000 radio and TV stations subscribe to AEA alerts, 175,000 people have downloaded the mobile app and 222,000 follow AEA on Facebook and Twitter.

“You can’t reach everybody all the time, but you want to give people as many choices as possible,” he says.

To be prepared for a major power outage such as happened Tuesday night, one can tune in the car radio, and it’s always a good idea to have a backup phone charger, a battery-operated radio and a generator.

Mr. Trytten says that by April or so of next year, AEA will be able to reach all Albertans on their smartphones, whether or not they have the app installed.

A strong message to take from this fall’s fires is to follow multiple channels of communication and to know where to get your information from.

The importance of FireSmart principles must also be stressed, as Scott Long, executive director of Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said on CBC Radio last week that events like this fall’s fires are “probably the new norm.”

For more photos, please see the Facebook album.
Aerial photos taken by Shannon Robison on Oct. 20.
Flight courtesy of Alberta Wildfire

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From the October 25, 2017 print edition of Shootin’ the Breeze.
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