Marsh fire damage costly

Marsh fire damage costly

28 November 2009

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Canada — More than just marshland was lost in a huge fire that burned northeast of High Bluff for days last week.

A lot of taxpayers’ money went into fighting that fire, which was totally unnecessary, Rural Municipality of Portage la Prairie Ward 1 Coun. Garth Asham said.

Asham estimated the fire, which involved bringing out caterpillar tractors from the RM to create firebreaks and water bombers from Jonair, probably cost in the tens of thousands to put out considering the cost of airplane fuel alone plus wages for the people fighting the fire and other equipment involved.

That cost is then passed onto the general public, Asham said.

“It goes back onto the taxpayers of Manitoba and the taxpayers of the RM of Portage la Prairie,” he stated.

There was also the potential for serious injury to the people fighting the fire, which was also unnecessary, he added.

“It’s what could have happened with a fire like that,” the RM councillor said.

Everyone is aware of where everyone else is during daylight hours, he noted, but when it hits nightfall, that’s not always the case, adding to the danger of fighting the fire.

While the fire is still officially under investigation, Asham suspects it was errant stubble burning that likely caused the blaze. He said people should refrain from lighting fires unless they have the resources and expertise to ensure they don’t get out of control.

While a similar fire three years ago threatened St. Ambroise, Asham recalled, this was the worst one he has personally been involved with.

As Asham is councillor for Ward 1, he also attended the fire to monitor how firefighting efforts were going. Ward 1 covers the northeast corner of the RM from St. Ambroise south to Highway 227.

The total area that burned is estimated to be approximately 4,144 hectares of marsh and grassland interspersed with small bodies of water ranging north to south between Road 81 N. to Road 77 N. and east to west between Road 26 W. and Road 31 W.

Along with Portage Emergency Services, the Cartier and Woodlands Fire Departments, the RM of Portage, Manitoba Hydro and the Office of the Fire Commissioner also responded to the fire. Jonair Ltd. supplied its crop dusters to act as water bombers.

As for fighting the fire, it wasn’t easy, noted Capt. Corey Jowett with Portage Emergency Services, as firefighters often had to fight the marsh itself to get to the fire.

“The biggest issue with fighting any fire on the marsh is accessibility,” he noted.

Both the mini pumpers from Portage and Cartier got stuck at one point, as well as an ATV.

“The Office of the Fire Commissioner had a truck get stuck,” Jowett added.

Fire crews were also called out multiple times and worked long shifts at the fire, which Jowett said burned almost 4,200 hectares of marsh.

“Our original call came in at 12:57 (p.m.) on the 17th,” he said.

Firefighters stayed out that time until 3:40 a.m. on Nov. 18. Then were called back at 10:50 a.m. on Nov. 18 and stayed until the fire was finally extinguished.

“The final crews didn’t leave until 1:07 (a.m.) on the 19th,” he added.

The water bombers were key in fighting the fire. “They flew the 18th, and they came back for part of the morning on the 19th,” Jowett said of the water bombers.

“They only dropped 10 loads over two days,” he said.

Part of fighting marsh fires involves creating firebreaks. The RM of Portage, which usually assists in fighting wildfires by providing heavy equipment, used a couple of Caterpillars to create wide swaths of overturned earth to separate the area that was burning from unburned sections of marsh. This prevents the fire from continuing on its path by depriving it of fuel.

Unlike a fire that burns in a forest with peat moss, there isn’t much danger of the fire going underground and popping up elsewhere as it’s too wet in the marsh, Jowett noted.

A bigger problem is large piles of reeds, which the fire will burn overtop of, continuing to smolder and starting the fire again.

The cause of the fire is currently under investigation by the Office of the Fire Commissioner.

Meanwhile, due to the unseasonably warm autumn weather, the provincial government extended the requirement for permits to burn crop residue to Dec. 4. Previously, the requirement for permits ended on Nov. 15.    

Under the permit program, authorization is required for daytime burning of crop residue. Authorizations are issued for certain hours and in certain areas of the province based on weather, moisture and favourable smoke dispersion conditions. Night burning is banned year-round.

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