Saskatchewan came together in many ways during the Oct. 17-18 fires.
At the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan(APAS) annual general meeting, one of the directors with APAS gave an update.
Don Connick, director of APAS district three said a pacific low pressure system swept down the eastern slopes of the rocky mountains, across Alta. and Sask. bringing winds of 100 to 120 kilometres per hour. At one point Connick said a wind turbine in Gull Lake recorded a peak gust of 147 kilometres per hour.
“Before the day was over, dozens of fires would start. Most from power lines arching and dropping molten metal into the tinder dry grass,” said Connick to the crowd. “By the end of the day, 85,000 acres of land would be burned black. Nearly 800 head of cattle would be dead, a number of bison would perish, farm yards and feed stacks would be destroyed and miles of fence would lay smoldering.”
You could hear a pin drop as Connick also spoke about the life lost from Alta. volunteer fire fighter James Hargave during the blaze. Along with the injuries of Eddy Riehl who tried to help get fences cut for cattle to escape and the father and son duo, Ron and Evan Wedrick who battled the fire near Tompkins.
Provincial fire commissioner, Duane McKay was also in attendance at the AGM. McKay said that he’s amazed by the amount of people who helped battle the giant blaze.
“I think to myself, ‘what kind of people live in Saskatchewan?’ you have a massive wall of fire coming and they don’t leave, instead they hook up to a trailer and drive out to face this fiery beast,” McKay said.
Connick said he’s had firsthand experience with grass fires however; this one was on a whole new level.
“This one scared the living bejabbers out of me,” Connick said. “It was not a prairie fire, it was truly a wild fire. There were flames over 20 feet high (and as wide as) 20 to 100 feet, driven by winds faster than you can drive a pickup truck on a gravel road.”
The fire commissioner said fires in the province are not uncommon. They’re just less common in the south.
“In the north, in the forests, we have fires every year and have mass evacuations for people that may be threatened,” said McKay.
McKay went on to say that what happened in the south part of Sask. was “significant” and “catastrophic” and reminded him of what happens down in the dessert communities in the U.S.
There were 1100 calls to 911 that Tuesday with more than 50 fire departments fighting the fire in the south west corner of Sask.
Connick who’s APAS district is in the south corner, said he spoke with Bentley Gibson, chief of the Gull Lake volunteer fire department in regards to what was learned after that fiery day.
“His first advice was, ‘remember the cardinal rule, — life ahead of property’ — never jeopardize a human life to try and save property,” Connick said. “Be prepared and ensure that your RM, your town or your community has a well prepared, up to date, emergency plan and review that plan frequently with everyone involved.”
He went on to say that everyone should also have a personal plan for their family or farmland.
“Don’t just plan for fire, but for other emergencies,” he said. “Make sure that you have more than one escape route, have a plan in case you’re on your own for three days or more.”
He said a person needs to be prepared for all weather conditions. He told a story about how a woman noticed the flames in the field across her yard and thought she should start getting prepared to leave. As she went to the garage — it didn’t open — as the power was out which meant the garage opener didn’t work.
“Remember when the power goes out, everything else goes out,” he said.
McKay reinforced what Connick said, adding that it truly is a group effort from the top executives right down to the farmers that bring water in for the firefighters to use.
Need to have a plan in place
The APAS district three director said there needs to be clear communication with every organization that’s involved with an emergency plan. Along with a “well defined chain of command.”
In the future, he said more money might be needed to be invested so that that volunteer fire departments have better equipment and training.
The topic of bystanders was also brought up. Connick said he can’t stress enough that everyone needs to listen to the RCMP for where it’s safe to go and not to go.
“We actually had a major road into the fire blocked because a curious onlooker, panicked and actually drove through a chain link buffalo fence, upon to the road and hit a truck and blocked the road,” Connick said.
He also called the amount of people in the province using their cell phones a “titanic problem” as cell service was blocked or slowed for first responders.
“Social media lit up like a Christmas tree and the electronic overload on the cell towers started jamming the system,” he said.
Connick added it was critical that a landline system was in place, which is something APAS has lobbied to keep in the past.
The AGM wraps up on Thursday.