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Stubble smoke gets in Winnipeg’s eyes

Smoke from resumed stubble burning on Manitoba farms Wednesday is being blamed for a severe smash-up between three semi-trailers on a Winnipeg truck route, among other reported traffic accidents in the city early Thursday morning.

The provincial agriculture department on Sept. 5 lifted a blanket ban on burning of crop residue that had been in place since the previous Wednesday (Aug. 29) after a daytime three-car collision on the Trans-Canada Highway west of Winnipeg, near Elie.

Today the opposition Progressive Conservatives argued that the NDP government should not have reacted to the Elie accident in such a knee-jerk fashion in delaying all farmers’ burning operations for a week, leading to a rush of burning projects when the blanket ban was lifted.

The lifting of the ban does not allow unrestricted round-the-clock burning, but rather resumes the system of daily authorizations, posted each morning (online and at a toll-free number. The system limits burning to approved regions based on weather conditions during specified hours, and forbids burning at night and outside the authorized hours.

However, driving conditions in the city Wednesday night and Thursday morning were made indisputably worse by thick smoke, creating a layer of smog that reduced visibility in some areas to what witnesses described as near zero.

One of three truck drivers involved in the semi-trailer collisions on McGillivray Boulevard was reportedly hospitalized and in critical condition. That crash led to the closure of the south Perimeter Highway — the ring road allowing Trans-Canada Highway traffic to bypass the city — in turn inconveniencing thousands of commuters. Several other traffic accidents were reported due to reduced visibility.

It’s not known how many crop residue fires near the city were left Wednesday to burn overnight. The Winnipeg Free Press reports on its web site that one farmer at LaSalle, just south of Winnipeg, received a ticket from Winnipeg city police for burning on a field just inside the city limits, and may be subject to a fine.

The farmer told reporters that the province had authorized burning in the area that day, but the damp stubble created thicker smoke than expected. The newspaper reported that he was ticketed for breaking a city burning bylaw.

The province has not mentioned plans for another blanket ban, but nevertheless did not allow residue burning anywhere in agricultural Manitoba Thursday.

The province, while allowing stubble burning, does not specifically endorse it and lists several alternatives for straw management on its agriculture department’s web site.

Tory leader Hugh McFadyen said the consequences of the week-long ban for motorists, farmers and people with respiratory problems were serious.

“After one farmer broke the rules and burned stubble without a permit, the NDP panicked with an across-the-board ban,” he said in a statement. “When complaints came in from producers, they panicked again and lifted the ban, creating the rush to burn that led to the heavy smoke last night and this morning.”

Provincial Liberal leader Jon Gerrard went further, calling for an end to stubble burning within 50 km of the city and a new plan to help area farmers dispose of crop residue.

Gerrard said the province should have come up with such a plan for crop trash by the time of the closure in 2005 of the former Isobord manufacturing plant at Elie. The plant, last owned by Dow Chemical, had bought and baled farmers’ wheat straw after harvest from within a wide area near the city, for use in fibreboard.

Giant stacks of old and/or rotting large square straw bales, all baled and purchased for strawboard, now line Highway 1 east of Elie, near the mothballed factory.

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