ST. ALBERT – Poorly maintained locomotives likely sparked one of the largest forest fires in Alberta history, a prosecutor alleged Monday at the start of what could be a 21/2-month trial for three railway companies.
“You will hear from Crown experts these locomotives should never have left the shop,” Susan McRory said in her opening address in the trial of RaiLink Canada Ltd., RaiLink Ltd. and RailAmerica Inc.
The three associated companies are jointly charged under Alberta’s Forest Prairie and Protection Act with conducting an activity involving fire in a forest protection area without exercising reasonable care. If convicted, each company faces a maximum fine of $5,000.
Canadian National Railway was expected to stand trial on a similar charge, but a CN lawyer told court the company now intends to plead guilty to an amended count at the end of the trial for the other three companies. CN could also face a maximum $5,000 fine.
The Alberta government announced last week that CN will pay nearly $20 million to settle a civil claim involving the fire in May 2001, which is believed to have started beside railway tracks near the tiny community of Chisholm, about 150 kilometres north of Edmonton.
The fire, which the province estimates cost about $30 million to fight, destroyed at least nine homes and 116,000 hectares of boreal forest.
McRory said she doesn’t intend to prove the engines started the fire, only that they had the potential to because of their “deplorable” condition. “The charge deals with the creation of a risk of danger,” she said.
A chronic problem called “engine souping” is caused when lubricating oil leaks into the combustion chamber, causing a buildup of carbon that can be blown out through the smokestacks as burning cinders, she said.
“There was some attempt by RaiLink to fix the problem, but that attempt was ineffective.”
CN was transporting the engines for RaiLink to Edmonton from Smith, about 25 kilometres north of Chisholm, at the time the fire started. McRory said CN wasn’t aware the locomotives were in such poor condition.
McRory said the engines likely started two fires, the one at Chisholm and a smaller one near Picardville, south of Westlock.
“The evidence you will hear about the Chisholm fire will be circumstantial,” she said. “The evidence you will hear about the Picardville fire will be direct.”
The Crown then called a forest fire management expert as the first of dozens of witnesses.
Bruce MacGregor testified that due to drought conditions in 2001, a blaze would have to have been caught within 15 minutes of starting to prevent it from spreading through tinder-dry grasses and forests as a wildfire.
“We had a bad situation on our hands,” he said.
By Jeff Holubitsky, The Edmonton Journal, firstname.lastname@example.org