United Kingdom — The gray ground, still touched by frost in spots, might be the biggest safety threat in Clarington for the next several weeks.
Clarington firefighters have already battled nine grass fires this spring and are braced for many more to spark and spread across the municipality’s greenspaces. Fire crews have responded to 236 reported grass fires over the past three years.
“They’re dirty fires, very labour intensive and very intense,” said Ken Ostler, Clarington fire training officer.
Grass fires are big, spreading out over a vast area quickly and continuously expanding, and they produce a lot of smoke. The grass is also quick to relight, making firefighters retrace their steps looking for “hot spots”.
The thawing ground is soft and the water tankers often can’t get across the fields to reach the fire.
“Usually a half dozen times a year, you need to tow a (fire) truck out,” said Fire Chief Gord Weir.
That leaves firefighters lugging large water canisters — which weigh approximately 50 pounds — on their backs over uneven ground to chase the flames before they reach neighbouring homes or barns. The firefighters alternate between manually pumping water onto the fire and using a stiff-bristled broom to bush the flames back.
Grass fires are caused a number of ways, from illegal backyard bonfires to a carelessly discarded cigarette butt to a passing train sending sparks into the dry grass around the tracks.
“The railway lines will cause us grief the next few weeks,” said Chief Weir.
The old rail ties, soaked in kerosene, are a real battle to extinguish. Firefighters will stop the progression of the grass fire, then come back and spend hours ensuring the rail ties are fully doused.
Sometimes the local grass fires are not so accidental, but deliberately set. In April 2012 there was a rash of small fires set in the grass along the CP rail line in Bowmanville and several times children were seen running from the area after the fire broke out.
Residents found guilty of starting a grass fire, even accidentally, can be charged and fined. The cost can be staggering: $410 per vehicle for each hour, plus charges under the fire code that can be as much as $50,000.
“We haven’t charged anybody yet. The first time if it’s minor we’ll just warn,” said Chief Weir. “People don’t think about the consequences. ‘I do this and then maybe my neighbour’s barn burns down’.”
Clarington residents can have an open air fire, with a permit from the fire department. The open air burning bylaw limits the size of the pile, the distance from brush and structures and the weather conditions for a fire.
“Lots of people still have 45-gallon drums in the backyard, or fire pits,” said Chief Weir. “People are not legally allowed to burn without a permit.”