A deadly combination of wind and runaway grass fires claimed the life of one man and destroyed multiple properties across southern Manitoba last week as rural firefighters scrambled from one incident to the next.
High winds April 13, 14 and 15 also blackened the skies with soil blowing off of unplanted fields, a sombre reminder of the risks of erosion as the country recognizes this week as Soil Conservation Week.
The fire that tore through an acreage just south of Halbstadt mid-afternoon on April 13 trapped and killed a man neighbours identified as Harvey Zacharias, 72, of Winnipeg.
The incident remained under investigation last week and RCMP released few details except to say the fire, which destroyed the home and outbuildings and scorched the property did not appear suspicious.
Farm neighbour Howard Friesen said he’d been working in the wind all afternoon and had moved inside his farm shop, when intense gusts around 3:30 made him look outside to see what was up. That’s when he saw large volumes of smoke billowing over Zacharias’s property and he and others dashed over there immediately.
“We suspect that he was probably burning leaves or something,” Friesen said, adding that Zacharias, who frequently visited the farm site and to look after the property, may never had realized how intensely the wind was blowing that afternoon.
“When you get on the yard, you don’t sense the wind,” said Friesen. “But when you get outside the bush, it’s terribly windy. And if you have wind, fire can get out of hand really quick.”
He’s had a few “close calls” himself over the years, he added. “It seems like as soon as you light a fire the wind picks up. That’s what’s happened to me anyways.”
That’s the warning fire chiefs had for Manitobans last week.
Volunteer firefighters were putting in long days last week called out to blazes in the extreme wind and dry conditions of central and eastern Manitoba, including those set by homeowners to burn grass or leaves.
“There’s no such thing as a controlled burn,” said Irv Braun, fire chief for the RM of Rhineland and Altona. “I always maintain that the minute you’ve pulled matches out of your pocket, you’ve lost control.”
What often happens is people set fires without taking heed of the wind’s speed or direction, he said.
“People will say, ‘when I lit it the wind was just right and I had it all under control until the wind changed,’” he said. But things can change so quickly.
“We can have a strong wind coming out of the southeast, and all of a sudden it will die down, and then it will come up from the north in a matter of a 20-minute shift,” he said. “Then you start to turn the fire back in the direction you were trying to avoid.”
People misjudge other things too, such as assuming damp earth will help to slow the spread of a fire lit to burn leaves or grass on it. It won’t, said Braun. Dry leaves or branches can be extremely flammable, he said.
“That moisture underneath does very little to slow down or stop the spread of fire,” he said.
Human-caused fires are one of their biggest concerns, deputy fire commissioner for Manitoba Robert Pike told other media last week, noting those actions can also include careless tossing of a cigarette butt, or getting debris caught in the exhaust of an ATV or machinery.
The only time to light a fire is when wind speeds are 15 km an hour or less, and only when other precautions have been taken including having sufficient water sources and manpower to control it, Pike said during a CBC Radio interview.
“You need to understand that any outdoor fire can quickly become an uncontrolled wildfire.”
On April 14, Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship cancelled all burning permits issued in the eastern and central regions of Manitoba due to dry conditions and the forecast of continued high winds. The ban affects an area extending from the United States border on the south, through the Interlake to Gypsumville and Berens River in the north and east to the Ontario border.
Statistics from the Office of the Fire Commissioner show last year there were 95 reports of inadequately controlled fires that started out as controlled grass fires.
Meanwhile, as weekend rain dialled the threat, other rural Manitobans were left cleaning up other types of losses from fires they had no part in setting.
A Miami-area couple lost two barns after a hydro line loosened in the extreme wind and set the grass alight on their property.
Beth and Don Cruikshank say they weren’t even aware it had started until a neighbour rushed in to tell them their barn was on fire. They were astonished at how quickly it spread.
“It went from the one barn on the south side to the barn next to it and then over to the bush and then to a shed,” said Beth Cruikshank. “It got halfway around our windbreak in half an hour.”
Miami and Roland fire departments arrived quickly and so did volunteers from nearby Skyview Hutterite Colony but they couldn’t save the two barns, which contained some antique tractors and other stored items, added Don Cruikshank.
Extreme wind is usually coming out of the north during a blizzard, he said.
“A south wind of that speed… that’s pretty rare.”
Downed power lines also sparked another blaze near Manitou on April 14, destroying a wooden farmhouse, the Lea House, which was a municipally designated heritage site dating 1880.
A grass fire that started up 1.5 km south of Steinbach just after 1 p.m. on April 17 resulted in the evacuation of 15 homes in the area as a precaution. An RCMP report said residents were allowed to return around 3:30 p.m. the same day after the fire was put out.