By Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press
Wind-whipped wildfires that scorched parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan on Tuesday and forced the evacuation of several communities have taken a human toll.
Officials with Cypress County in southeastern Alberta confirmed the death of a firefighter who was battling a fierce grass fire driven by gusting winds near Hilda. A release said James Hargrave of the Walsh fire station died in the line of duty Tuesday night.
“James was community-minded and joined the fire services to help and protect residents far and near,” the release said. “He was a great father and will be dearly missed by his wife, children, extended family, friends, neighbours and fellow first responders.”
Hargrave died when the large water-tanker truck he was driving lost control and rolled over. It is unknown if the fire or smoke were factors in the collision.
Two men were injured fighting a wildfire near Tompkins.
“They were out fighting the fire. Those males have been transported to a medical facility in Alberta to receive additional assistance,” RCMP Insp. Ted Munro said on a conference call Wednesday.
Munro said the two injured men are from Saskatchewan.
Ray Unrau, director of operations for Emergency Management and Fire Safety in Saskatchewan, expressed his concern for those lost and injured.
“We’d like to express our deepest condolences and sympathies to the families and to the casualties themselves,” Unrau said.
Almost all of the evacuations ordered during the height of the fires had been lifted by Wednesday.
In Saskatchewan, residents of Leader and Burstall were allowed to return home and the fire near Tompkins was under control, although a farmhouse and barn were lost. There was also a loss of some livestock near Richmound.
However, thousands of Saskatchewan residents remained without electricity.
Four local states of emergency remained in effect in Alberta.
One of those was in the Crowsnest Pass area of southwestern Alberta, where 150 people were forced from their homes in Coleman and fireguards were constructed overnight.
The mayor of Crowsnest Pass said things had calmed down somewhat after a frantic day.
“The wind has died down. We’ve got helicopters bucketing the area. There’s still no power,” Mayor Blair Painter said.
“We were able to divert the fire so it hasn’t affected those areas. I’m hoping we’re able to get those people back just as soon as possible.”
Painter said the blaze was probably caused by downed power lines as a result of strong winds. He said the fire jumped Highway 3 and started about one kilometre west of the evacuated area.
Power lines that reportedly landed on the highway itself will have to be dealt with before traffic is eventually allowed through, he said.
But no one was injured and a welcome centre was set up in the nearby town of Pincher Creek, where more than 80 residents registered.
Painter said it was a wild scene when the fire started.
“We had 130 kilometre-an-hour gusts. Probably about 100 kilometres an hour steady, and then gusts up to 130. Guys were even having a hard time standing up so, yeah, it was pretty scary.”
Painter said it didn’t appear any homes burned down. Two barns and two outbuildings were confirmed lost to the fire. A fish hatchery also sustained damage.
States of emergency were still in effect for Medicine Hat, Wheatland County and the Municipal District of Acadia, but all evacuation orders, with the exception of the Crowsnest Pass, were lifted.
Alberta Agriculture and Forestry had 25 wildland firefighters supporting local fire departments. Four helicopters were being deployed.