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Dry, windy weather fans grass fires

April was a wild, windy and hot month across the province — and some of the heat wasn’t from sunshine.

Volunteer fire departments have been busy dousing grassfires that have raced out of control, claiming one life and several properties.

Despite the weekend rains, all rural residents, including farmers, are being urged to avoid lighting fires. Some municipalities have even imposed bans.

“Pay attention to your local fire bans, respect the law and stop burning,” Manitoba’s Fire Commissioner David Schafer said in an interview at press time Monday. Where fires are allowed, Schafer is urging caution. Burn later in the day when winds are reduced, build a firebreak and have water on hand and a plan to bring a fire under control if necessary, he said.

The same dry, warm, windy weather that’s allowed farmers to start seeding early is behind the rash of grass fires around southern Manitoba.

Many of the fires that got out of control were set by property owners cleaning up dead grass or crop debris, a couple spread from burning garbage barrels, while some were believed to have started from discarded cigarettes.

Arson is suspected in an April 16 ditch fire along Highway 23 in the RM of Roland, a Carman RCMP official said. A witness reported a male lighting the fire and fleeing the scene eastbound in a dark, two-door vehicle. The RCMP and fire department arrived and the fire was put out. The RCMP is still investigating.

Each municipality decides whether or not to ban fires. Where bans are not in place the public is asked to be careful, said RCMP spokeswoman Sgt. Line Karpish.

“We’ve seen a rash of grass fires and unfortunately one is believed to have contributed to a death,” she said.

Seventy-eight-year-old John Froese was found dead April 26 in a shed on his farm south of Portage la Prairie after firefighters extinguished a grass fire on his property.

A water bomber was called to help douse a blaze at Mandak Metal Processors’ salvage yard near Selkirk April 28. According to the Winnipeg Free Press a grass fire is the suspected cause.

Firefighters from Clandeboye, St. Andrews, East Selkirk, Lockport and West St. Paul were called in to help.

Volunteer rural firefighters across southern Manitoba have been battling grass fires all April. In the RM of Dufferin for example early in the month the local fire department received nine calls and eight were for grass fires, Reeve Shawn McCutcheon said in an interview April 30. The department was called out three times in one day. It’s physically taxing on the firefighters and disruptive at their workplaces, he said.

“These are volunteers and they have to work the next day after attending to a fire,” he said.

The RM of Dufferin hasn’t banned fires in part because enforcing the bylaw would be difficult, he said.

“It would be a lot easier for the province to do because it can utilize the RCMP to enforce it,” McCutcheon said.

The province already enforces regulations concerning stubble burning, he added.

As a farmer himself, McCutcheon said he understands the need for farmers to sometimes burn field debris.

“If you really have to burn be very careful,” he said. “And if you really don’t have to burn don’t.”

Many parts of Manitoba were wetter than normal in March and April, but it wasn’t enough to offset a dry, warm winter, said Dale Marciski, an outreach officer with Environment Canada in Winnipeg. Winnipeg and Brandon received 21 mm of precipitation between December 2011 and February 2012 — half the average.

April has also been windier than normal. Winnipeg in April, on average, has two days when winds reach 52 km an hour or more, this year there were eight, Marciski said. Brandon normally gets one but this April recorded nine.

Wind sucks moisture out of the soil and plants, said David Phillips, a senior climatologist Environment Canada based in Toronto. What southern Manitoba needs is some good rains “and not gully washers,” he said.

As things green up, the fire risk should decline, he said, but Environment Canada is forecasting May and June to be warmer and drier than normal.

This year’s dry conditions are sharp contrast to a year ago when Manitoba experienced extremely wet conditions in many parts of the province, Phillips said.

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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