Residents in Hilda and other districts along the Alberta-Saskatchewan border in Cypress County, Special Area No. 2 and the MD of Acadia woke up to large swathes of burned and barren landscape Wednesday, Oct. 18 after wildfires driven by 100 km/h winds ravaged the area for most of day before.
Several farms in the region sustained heavy damage during the fires, and a few farm homes were destroyed.
By morning’s light the devastation was apparent as abandoned farm equipment and burned structures stood smoking throughout the landscape.
Entering the Hilda region, dozens of smoke plumes could still be seen on the horizon from intermittent hotspots in field and on hill late Wednesday afternoon. Still burning power poles, charred bales and smoking yardsites all added to the apocalyptic sense of the scene.
Hamlets and towns in the region were spared, but residents were evacuated the day before as high winds made for erratic fire behaviour. Falling power lines set off several localized blazes that quickly fanned into roaring infernos, sweeping through the landscape and sending up tremendous clouds and ash, which made for dangerous driving conditions.
Evacuated residents were allowed to return Wednesday afternoon but most communities were still without power as crews worked to replace hundreds of downed power lines and miles and miles of cable.
Conditions were still precarious Wednesday afternoon, as many small fires still burned throughout the region.
“There are a lot of hotspots out here today, and we are trying to get to those hotspots before they flare up again,” confirmed firefighter Colton Obritsch from the RM of Fox Valley, who was teamed up with Cypress County volunteers to look for and put out hotspots.
“The wind is supposed to pick up again later on so hopefully we can get all these hotspots cooled before it does.”
While firefighters and volunteers fanned out to put out flare-ups and to help safeguard local farms, communities and residents, it was already too late for the Kirschenman farm house, which was razed to the ground by Tuesday’s inferno.
Andy Kirschenman drove down from Medicine Hat, where his family had been evacuated to the night before, to survey the damage in daylight.
“Fire is an incredible thing, especially when combined with the wind we had,” was all he could say looking for the first time at the devastation of the home he grew up in. “It’s an awful, terrible thing.”
The rest of the farmyard, and most machinery were spared in the blaze, with just the home on the edge of the property being destroyed. Kirschenman said a house could be rebuilt, but one thing which couldn’t be replaced was his mother’s, (artist Elizabeth Kirschenman), lifetime works of art.
“And her piano,” he added. “I am still a little shocked by it all. It hasn’t sunk in yet.”
Neighbour Lorne Hauser had his farm spared by less than 100 feet as fire burned by on both sides of his house. He, like many residents, was out touring the area to see the extent of the damage. One burned-up buck deer he found in a field near his house told Hauser the entire story.
“That’s a mature buck, about four years old, and he got burned up,” said a stunned Hauser. “The winds were just unreal, and they moved so fast. Because everything is seeded nowadays, and there is no more summer fallow, it’s just like back in the old days — when a prairie fire started, we couldn’t stop it.”
Hauser said conditions this year in the region were particularly bad due to being extremely dry. Severe fire risk warning signs have been posted throughout the area the entire summer and fall.
“It’s bone dry,” confirmed Hauser. “With all that wind, if a power line got blown down, and you can see them down all over here, there are sparks, and that’s all it takes.”
The same storm system which led to fires near Hilda and Burstall also led to fires in several neighbouring jurisdictions and took its destructive toll on livestock and properties all along the S.W. Saskatchewan/ S.E.Alberta border.
The blaze ignited by the storm was an incredibly dangerous one for anyone caught out in it, including first responders and firefighters.
Cypress County firefighter, local rancher and Western Stock Growers’ Association vice-president James Hargrave lost his life in the Hilda blaze. Hargrave, who leaves behind a wife and four small children, was laid to rest on Oct. 29 in Medicine Hat.
Tompkins area volunteer firefighters, and local farmers, Ron Wedrick and son Evan suffered third-degree burns to much of their bodies after being caught out while attempting to fight a blaze near their home community during the storm.
Go Fund Me campaigns have been set up for both families.