Powerful winds that whipped across Western Canada helped ignite and spread a series of wildfires across the tinder dry prairie, and lead to the death of one Alberta volunteer firefighter who had crossed into Saskatchewan to help battle the flames.
Sudden windstorms struck from British Columbia to Manitoba on Tuesday, and the more minor effects ranged from power outages to downed trees to smashed tower windows in downtown Calgary. The extreme winds were the likely cause behind two Alberta train derailments.
The forceful winds also sparked and fuelled fires from north of Winnipeg to Alberta's Crowsnest Pass. Provincial officials in Alberta said winds that exceeded 120 kilometres an hour downed power lines, providing the initial spark for most of the grassfires. Hundreds of people were forced to evacuate from their homes, and by Wednesday afternoon when many of the fires were under control, 10 homes across the southern part of the province – including two on the Siksika First Nation – and a number of other buildings had been destroyed in the flames.
"It was a dry winter and a dry summer," said Alberta wildfire information officer Travis Fairweather. "And then add in the wind."
Even in a year rife with wildfires across North America, the RCMP in southern Alberta said they have never faced so many different emergencies at once. The latest wildfires forced evacuations in six rural municipalities, across a huge geographic expanse.
"We're talking almost border-to-border," RCMP superintendent Garrett Woolsey said of Tuesday's emergency operations. "I've never seen that … this was multiple high-risk incidents all at once."
Cypress County, a rural municipality that surrounds Medicine Hat, said volunteer firefighter James Hargrave was killed in the line of duty Tuesday evening. The 34-year-old died in a collision between the water truck he was driving and a pickup, the RCMP said. The fire was moving eastward toward the Saskatchewan towns of Leader and Burstall, and Alberta firefighters were coming in to help.
Alberta's Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier tweeted a picture with Mr. Hargrave, a rancher from a prominent local family that has long homesteaded in the area. United Conservative Party MLA Drew Barnes said Mr. Hargrave was part of the firefighting team that fought last month against another savage fire near Bindloss, Alta. That fire saw dozens of cattle burned and killed, and destroyed the home of an 89-year-old man who had to be rescued from his upstairs bedroom.
"James was very community-minded and joined the fire services to help and protect residents far and near," a press release from Cypress County said. "He was a great father, and will be dearly missed by his wife, children, extended family, friends, neighbours and fellow first responders."
Most of the fires in Alberta had died down by Wednesday but in some areas of the southern part of the province, the wild winds started up again by that afternoon. Near Coleman, a community in Alberta's Crowsnest Pass, a 106-hectare fire was still out of control Wednesday afternoon. Residents reported seeing helicopters buzz around as two dozen firefighters battled the blaze.
Coleman resident Sarah Baillie, 38, said she was making meatloaf for dinner on Tuesday afternoon when thick smoke suddenly surrounded her home.
Within 10 minutes, she had piled into her car with her one-year-old English mastiff, Maggie, and was driving away from her acreage with hot ashes raining down. As she stopped at a neighbour's house to rescue their dog, she saw flames shooting skywards 60 metres away.
Ms. Baillie, now waiting for an evacuation order to be lifted so she can return for a change of clothes, has learned her family's home is still standing but her children's treehouse was destroyed in the flames.
"You feel displaced," she said, adding she is incredibly grateful to be safe. "By the grace of God, none of our structures went up."
Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta, said the source of ignition this week should be an impetus to design power lines that can withstand higher winds, or to install them underground. He added that while October wildfires are not common, they are not unheard of in southern Alberta, either.
"But this is consistent with climate change," he noted. "We're getting more days where it's very conducive to very active fire spread – and longer fire seasons."
Looking at wildfires globally, from California to Portugal and Spain, Prof. Flannigan said it's not the worst-ever year in terms of hectares burned. But he believes it is the worst in terms of societal losses, including the destruction of buildings, and lives.
"An area the size of India burns every year. There's a lot of fire globally. But this year has been a devastating year."