Farmers trade caps for firefighter hats

With much of Manitoba tinder dry, farmers have both a role in helping their local fire departments, and avoiding a fire on their own operations

Smoke clouds the horizon near Carberry April 1 thanks to one of the province’s list of recent grassfires.

When the Carberry North Cypress-Langford Fire and Rescue got the call about a fast-moving grassfire the afternoon of April 1, they immediately got on the phone.

They called in help. Fire departments from Shilo, Glenboro, Wawanesa and Elton came out to contain the blaze—whipped by wind gusts up to 57 kilometres an hour to claim almost a section of land and cause several dozen evacuations. The RCMP, Office of the Fire Commissioner, enforcement branch of Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development and local government-owned bulldozer all assisted.

At the same time, the department tapped yet another, more unofficial resource—its standing list of farmers.

Why it matters: Manitoba’s dry weather is coming due, and it’s keeping local fire departments hopping.

A number of area producers have allowed the fire department to keep their names on hand, should the department need water tanks, tillage equipment for fire breaks or (nestled as they are in the province’s potato country) access to irrigation wells for water, fire chief Keith Loney said.

“Everybody’s got a water tanker around here and we’ve got three or four colonies surrounding us and they’re all willing to help,” he said.

The April 1 fire was too early in the season for those irrigation systems, he said, but the department counted three or four farmers and at least three Hutterite colonies that added their firefighting efforts.

“This thing was a major fire,” Loney said. “It jumped a CP track and got into a sub-division, which has like 40 houses in it and grass two feet, three-feet high in between each one of them, and bush.”

  • Read more: Your farm checklist against fire

The Carberry fire, which the department later said was likely caused by an ATV, is far from the only blaze to spark in Manitoba’s tinder-dry spring conditions.

Carberry is among the areas that saw only 30 to 40 per cent of normal winter precipitation this year. Province-wide, Manitoba had seen one of the driest winters in recent memory. As of early April, most of southern Manitoba had counted less than 30 per cent of normal rain and snow since November, with some areas rating as low as 13 per cent of normal.

As of March 31, central and southwestern Manitoba were among the only regions in Canada to rate “extreme drought” conditions, according to the Canadian Drought Monitor, and most of the rest of agro-Manitoba was in a state of severe drought.

Across the province, fire departments in southeastern Manitoba were equally busy only days after the Carberry fire.

Fire claimed about 900 acres north of Vita that weekend in a multi-day fight. That fire was reportedly caused by a vehicle in the ditch.

Yet another fire sparked in the same region, this time near Zhoda, April 5. Days later, the list had grown again, with fires in the R.M. of Dufferin and near Lorette.

Burn bans were in place for most municipalities in southwestern and west-central Manitoba, the southern Interlake and eastern Red River Valley as of April 9. A total 46 municipalities had announced burn restrictions.

Smoke chokes the air near a grassfire in western Manitoba April 1. photo: Glenboro South Cypress Fire Department

As of April 3, the province also announced travel restrictions in provincial parks and Crown lands in parts of southwestern and eastern Manitoba. The announcement prohibited motor vehicles (including ATVs) in the backcountry of restricted areas, limited camping to developed campgrounds, limited boat landings to developed shores, and capped any fires to between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.

Farmers have their own list of things they can do to limit risk of sparking a fire, according to Thea Green, manager of Manitoba’s Farm Safety Program.

As well as having tillage equipment and water ready, paying attention to local burn bans and keeping yards clean and mowed, Green stressed the need for a farm plan.

“Have a plan now – don’t wait until it happens,” she said.

Everyone on-farm should know their role in the case of a fire, whether that is actively moving to control it or evacuating, she said, and farm information should be posted next to all telephones and in equipment, so that it’s easy to rattle off to 911, even while flustered.

If there are pastured livestock, she added, evacuation plans for the animals should be set up.

Loney echoed added to that advice.

“People should be, right now, watering their yards,” he said. “Anything helps. Get your grass sort of cleaned up. Clean your eaves. Do not have debris and woodpiles and stuff piled beside your houses. We’ve seen a lot of that and that does not help.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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