Tinder dry conditions in Manitoba heighten fire risk

Reeve of the RM of Stuartburn says fire that destroyed his 
home April 29 came at rural residential area ‘like a ball of fire’

RM of Stuartburn reeve and cattle producer Jim Swidersky lost his home on April 29 after a grassfire swept through the small bay near Zhoda. Photo: Lorraine Stevenson

The next time the reeve of the RM of Stuartburn has something to say about wildfire risks in rural Manitoba, people are bound to pay attention.

A longtime advocate for better cell and emergency communications services for his region, Jim Swidersky witnessed first hand just how devastating a wildfire can be as he watched his own home go up in flames the afternoon of April 29.

Intense south winds at least 70 km an hour and tinder dry conditions sent an out-of-control fire hurtling at his and other properties in a small residential bay in the RM.

His cattle were safe five miles away but the southeastern Manitoba farmer lost everything he owned in a matter of minutes.

“This time around I just realized ‘you’re it,’” the exhausted Swidersky told the Manitoba Co-operator a couple of days later.

The fire roared into their neighbourhood “like a ball of fire,” he said.

The roar of the fire was so loud and the air so smoke filled “you could have stood next to me and shouted and I wouldn’t have heard you,” he said.

Fire elsewhere in Manitoba also destroyed two homes in the RM of Armstrong in the Interlake region that same night.

Highways were closed as dry conditions and intense winds raised the spectre of hazardous fires right across the province.

There were widespread municipal burn bans in effect across the province last week including the RMs of St. Clements, Springfield, Brokenhead, Tache, Hanover, Ste. Anne, Ritchot, Alexander, Gimli, Reynolds, De Salaberry and Emerson-Franklin, as well as the town of Morris.

The dry is expected to prevail with much of southern Manitoba now declared to be in a state of moderate drought, according to Environment Canada.

In the Parklands area Cameron Abrey, chief of the Dauphin Fire Department said his crew was out for nearly 10 hours April 29 trying to control three separate grassfires in the RM of Dauphin.

It’s a very dry spring and things don’t look good, he said.

“We’ve had more fires over the past 10 days than we had over the entire year last year,” he said May 1.

This puts a lot of extra pressure on local fire departments that are often short staffed nowadays, he added. Abrey is also president of the Manitoba Association of Fire Chiefs and says shortages on volunteer fire departments are a worry at the best of times (see sidebar ‘Please join the fire department’).

Jeff Erwin, fire prevention officer with the Office of the Fire Commissioner, said fires right now are started from human activity.

“They’re man made this time of year,” he said.

The OFC was up in the Badger area of Manitoba last week. There had been several fire crews or about 25 firefighters in the area over the previous weekend while the area Swidersky’s home was threatened and they were there to monitor the situation.

“We get losses every year from wildfires,” he said.

May 5 was declared Wildfire Community Preparedness Day by the province to remind residents that taking steps before fire season hits can reduce their risk.

“We know that conditions are dry this year and we have already seen wildfires cause significant damage to parts of southeast Manitoba,” said Growth, Enterprise and Trade Minister Blaine Pedersen who is also minister responsible for the Office of the Fire Commissioner.

This is the fourth year FireSmart Canada has worked with provinces to raise awareness among property owners about precautionary steps to protect themselves. The day is a collaboration with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR), and The Co-operators.

Small actions such as clearing leaves, pine needles and combustible debris from roofs and gutters in homes or pruning low-hanging tree branches to a height of two metres can make a big difference if a fire breaks out in a local area, a provincial press release noted.

Other steps property owners can take to protect homes and cottages include removing combustible debris or items stored under decks and porches and getting rid of downed tree limbs and broken branches. It’s also very important to ensure address numbers are visible and to have a phone list (or text list) that can be used for fire evacuation alerts.

This year The Pas received a 2018 Wildfire Community Pre­paredness Day Project Funding Award to support activities aimed at reducing wildfire risks within their community.

“We’re trying to work towards having fire-adaptive communities,” said Erwin.

“We live in a fire-prone environment. It’s a natural part of the ecosystem. We have to learn to become more fire resilient with our homes and communities.”

COPA Medallion COPA finalist in 2012, 2014 and 2015.
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