May 20th, 2024

River valley fire likely started by smoking materials

By Lethbridge Herald on April 22, 2020.

Herald photo by Ian Martens - A helicopter buckets water from the river to help crews as they worked to contain a wildfire Tuesday afternoon in the city's river valley. @IMartensHerald

Tim Kalinowski
Lethbridge Herald
A major fire which burned through the river valley in the area of the Elizabeth Hall Wetlands on Tuesday afternoon was likely started by improperly disposed smoking materials.
“This is our fire season,” stated Chief of Fire and Emergency Services Marc Rathwell at a press briefing on Wednesday at city hall. “Across the province we are seeing fires already, and we need to respond to that. If you are throwing your cigarette butt out the window thinking it’s wet, it’s not wet. If you touch the ground, it might feel wet on the ground. But the actual grass in that fuel load is very dry.”
Rathwell said only a quick response by 24 of his members from three different stations, and the help of partner agencies averted what could have been a much larger disaster.
“It is still going on today,” explained Rathwell. “Our staff are down there monitoring any of the hotspots as they occur. We knew it was a large fire. We didn’t want it to jump the river or extend any further north or south. We brought in a number of resources, and we were able to bring in our mutual aid partners from Coalhurst and Coaldale with some wildland trucks to support us. Tollestrup Construction was very quick to support us bringing over a bulldozer in case we had to build a fireline, and also some water tenders. The other piece we called in, which is a little bit unusual for us, is we brought in some resources from Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, and that was the helicopter everybody saw bucketing water onto the fire.”
The helicopter was particularly instrumental at getting to the heart of the fire, said Rathwell, as the boggy ground in the wetlands restricted ground vehicle access to the area.
Mother Nature also lent a key hand at an important moment which firefighters were able to take advantage of.
“The wind was gusting,” Rathwell explained. “But the wind died for a short while, especially when the fire was trying to extend to the north. Our crews were establishing a line sort of at the north end of where that fire was. They were very concerned it could jump across the highway and continue on its way north. They were able to make a great stop there while the wind died down; so Mother Nature helped out a little bit.”
Rathwell said fortunately no one was injured in the blaze, which could have turned out worse because, he acknowledged, there were some illegal encampments near that area.
The toll on nature in the wetlands should also be limited, he said.
“We have lots of nesting birds that are traditionally in that area, but the folks from the (Helen Schuler) Nature Centre have told us we might be a bit fortunate here. It’s early in the nesting season; so the damage to those birds that would normally nest in that area might actually be a lot less than what we originally thought.”
Rathwell hoped Tuesday’s fire incident would drive home to people the fire dangers associated with use of river valley trails, and lead to better awareness and better fire safety habits among the community members who use them.
“We have known for a long time we have large fire loads in the river valley,” he said. “We are not able to do prescribed burns in those areas so we are looking at programs like using goats to try to minimize some of those.”
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