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Tornado-like winds from a freak "fire funnel" sucked a straw-plant manager from the cab of his pickup truck and threw him to his death as a spectacular blaze early yesterday near Winkler, Man., destroyed 100,000 bales of flax straw.

Irvin Harder, 63, a plant manager at Ecusta Fibres, died from his injuries as the inferno consumed the massive round straw bales that were laid out in stacked rows, 10 metres high, over 160 acres of property.

The inferno lit up the night sky and could be seen from almost 100 kilometres away. Witnesses said the sky was so red it was a night of perpetual dawn. Under clear blue prairie sunshine yesterday, soot fell from the sky like snow.

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Authorities say that the blaze was deliberately set and that the RCMP have begun a homicide investigation in connection with Mr. Harder's death.

"He was sucked from the truck and perished from his injuries," RCMP Sergeant Steve Saunders said. Searing heat from the blaze combined with cold air, creating the rare, tornado-like "fire funnel," he said.

Manitoba Fire Commissioner Doug Popowich described a fire funnel as "a tornado that's being caused as a result of the fire itself."

"It's more prevalent in open fires, wild fires, bush fires, where you have the cold and heat acting together to create the tornado," he said. "That's exactly what happened here." "Extremely high-intense heat from the flax bales, it was cool last night, cool winds, and so the conditions were just right to create this tornado effect," Mr. Popowich said.

"The only difference is that rather than just sucking up dirt and other air, you now get it sucking up the flames of the fire and you get this swirling fire effect.

"Not in my experience have I ever had this kind of thing happen before. We see these types of things in wild-fire situation, and on a smaller situation in large buildings, you'll see small twisters -- but not to the size of what we had here."

Mr. Harder and two other plant employees -- a 27-year-old woman and a 37-year-old man -- were in the pickup truck as thousands of straw bales lit up around them at midnight Wednesday. As Mr. Harder drove along a dirt access road to rescue some equipment, the truck was lifted by raging winds caused by the fire and carried 50 metres through the air. The truck landed on its wheels near the edge of the burning field. The other two occupants were treated for cuts and bruises in hospital, but Mr. Harder died around 9 a.m.

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It took three Department of Natural Resources water-bomber aircraft until mid-morning to douse the blaze, which officials say is likely to smoulder for several more days. Damage is estimated to be more than $1.8-million.

"The flames were shooting upward of 150 feet into the air," said Wayne Rempel, who arrived on the scene about 3 a.m.

"It was unbelievable, the power of that fire," he said, adding that he saw four or five fire funnels as he helped draw water for firefighters. Massive clumps of flaming straw would rise into the sky, creating unpredictable fireballs, he said. As the heat overhead intensified, the suspended fireballs began to combine with the cold night air, and gusts of wind blew up around them, swirled and then sucked up dirt from the ground.

"I'd never heard of these fire funnels before," he said. "But it looked exactly like a tornado. You had these huge fireballs rising into the air. It was a calm night. But around the fire it just was so incredibly windy we had dust being blown into our eyes. You couldn't see, our eyes were just burning."

Mr. Rempel used a video camera to record the vaccuum-like fire funnels, some of which were at least 15 metres in diameter.

"I had no idea this could happen in a fire," Mr. Rempel said. "We were a little naive, I guess."

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Police say the blaze appeared to have started in several spots, leading authorities to suspect arson.

Firefighters from the neighbouring towns of Morden and Altona came to help firefighters in Winkler, about 100 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg.

Meantime, fire officials in Manitoba cancelled all burning permits in several parts of the province due to dry weather conditions. The province also announced that crop-dusting aircraft will be put to work dropping fire-retarding chemicals on forest fires this summer.

To date this year, 17 Manitobans have died in fires.

Mr. Harder leaves his wife, who lives in Winkler, and two sons in Alberta and British Columbia.

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