Wildfires level rural homes; wind causes havoc in Calgary

Wildfires level rural homes; wind causes havoc in Calgary

04 January 2012

published by www.vancouversun.com 

Canada — CALGARY – As warm temperatures toppled records Wednesday, high winds stoked two large grass fires in southern Alberta and the city had to activate its municipal emergency plan.

At least three homes near Nanton burned in a grass fire that tore through a 60-square-kilometre area, requiring 80 firefighters to battle that blaze and another near Fort Macleod that raged for hours and forced the closure of Highway 2.

In Calgary, what started as a pleasant winter day — the high of 15.2 degrees broke a 90-year-old record — later saw officials warning people to tie down loose outdoor furniture and other material fearing forecasts up to 100 km/h winds.

Several roads were closed and at least one Calgary man was injured by the extreme conditions Wednesday.

The worst of the damage occurred near Nanton after a power pole was blown over, sparking a grass fire that quickly spread.

Cynthia Vizzutti, chief administrative officer Municipal District of Willow Creek, said Wednesday evening the two fires, near Nanton and Fort Macleod, were under control, but the many fire departments in the area could be out all night putting out hot spots.

“The wind is still howling. It’s a very tenuous situation,” Vizzutti said.

“We’re asking people to please use extreme caution with smoking materials or anything that could possibly start a fire. It’s very dry and the fire can move very fast,” she said.

RCMP spokesman Sgt. Patrick Webb said three homes were burned to some extent in the Nanton-area blaze and more were being checked for damage by emergency crews.

Dozens of homes near both fires were put under voluntary evacuations.

Though one woman reported breathing problems, police said there were no significant injuries caused by the fires.

Victor Czop witnessed one of the structure fires while driving by.

The wind was so strong, he said he pulled over, worried his car would be flipped over by the wind.

“The fire just raced across the field . . . at incredible speed. I don’t know if a person (could) have out-driven it on a gravel road, it was going that quick,” said Czop.

The winds were also to blame for a minor injury suffered by a construction worker at the new terminal at Calgary International Airport. He was struck by a heavy tarp dislodged about 2:30 p.m. by the high winds.

“He was up a ladder, so luckily he didn’t sustain any fall,” EMS spokesman Stuart Brideaux said.

An ambulance took the man, in his mid-50s, to Rockyview Hospital in stable condition.

Downtown Calgary, several blocks were closed to traffic on 6th Avenue S.W. as the sign at the top of the BMO tower was damaged. A 60-centimetre by three-metre piece of sheet metal was dangling, until the wind calmed sufficiently for emergency crews to remove it, police said.

At 3:40 p.m., Calgary activated the municipal emergency plan, which gives the Calgary Emergency Management Agency (CEMA) authority to direct the municipality’s resources.

“Pedestrians and drivers should be cautious when walking outside or driving, especially in open areas,” CEMA said in a statement.

Calgarians were asked to secure loose items in their yards or on their balconies, such as barbecues, furniture, garbage cans or other items.

The strong westerly winds developed Wednesday morning. Although they diminished by dinnertime, city officials warned of wind speeds at higher altitudes, where the wind could knock debris from highrises.

“The thermal inversion kept the winds at a higher altitude than we were anticipating, which is good,” said Bruce Burrell, the director of CEMA. “With any luck, we’ll have the same benefit of those temperatures working in our favour.”

This is the second major windstorm to hit Calgary recently.

In late November winds reaching 149 km/h caused $200-million worth of damage, according to insurers.

Burrell said city officials learned some lessons from the Nov. 27 windstorm and activated the emergency operations centre earlier this time.

Winds in the city reached more than 70 km/h, according to Environment Canada.

For those who managed to avoid wind-born perils, the day proved unseasonably balmy.

By Wednesday afternoon, Calgary had hit a record high, beating the old mark of 12.2.

“When you break a record by three degrees, that’s very significant,” said Bill McMurty, a meteorologist with Environment Canada. “We had 12 records set across the province. Another seven were within a degree or two of setting records.”

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