A volunteer firefighter was killed and two men trying to beat back flames on their property were injured in wind-whipped wildfires that scorched parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan and forced the evacuation of several communities.
Officials with Cypress County in southeastern Alberta confirmed the death of James Hargrave, 34, who was with the Walsh fire station. He was helping to fight a fierce grass fire Tuesday that had been driven into Saskatchewan by winds gusting to 100 km/h.
“He was an awesome fellow. He was very nice, kind and very considerate of the community and the people around him,” said Walsh resident Chris Sauer.
“He ran a big ranch north of Walsh with his wife and four young children. He was just an all-around nice person.”
Walsh had a listed population of 60 in the 2016 census. Sauer said everyone knows everybody.
“It’s terrible. It will devastate the community for a while here. He’ll surely be missed.”
Rick Friesen from Vauxhall, Alta., knew Hargrave when the two served together as delegates with the Alberta Beef Producers.
“He was a great young guy. He was friendly, hard-working and a good family man. It’s a shame what happened to him and I feel for his family.”
RCMP said Cypress County firefighters were assisting Saskatchewan crews when there was a crash around midnight involving a water truck and a pickup truck south of Burstall, Sask.
Police said Hargrave was alone in the water truck and died at the scene. The driver of the pickup truck was not badly hurt.
It wasn’t known if fire or smoke in the area were factors in the accident.
“This tragic loss of life speaks to the danger that this emergency posed and also to the heroism of the volunteers who sacrifice in service of their neighbours,” Cpl. Curtis Peters said in a release.
“The RCMP extends its deepest and most sincere condolences to the family of the deceased as well as his friends and colleagues in the Cypress County Fire Department.”
The men trying to protect their land near Tompkins, Sask., were seriously injured and had to be transported to hospital in Calgary. The RCMP did not have an update Wednesday on the condition of the two, who are 43 and 27 years old.
The executive director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency said Hargrave’s death outlines how dangerous grass fires can be.
“It is a very dangerous business that they’re in. Last night’s events are a clear indication of that,” said Scott Long.
“Grass fires, especially with that kind of wind, move at incredibly fast rates of speed and even professionals find themselves in precarious situations.”
On Wednesday evening, provincial officials updated the number of homes lost to 14 —two in Stobart, four in Gleichen, one in Rockyview County, five in Acadia Valley and two on the Siksika First Nation. They said, however, that could go up as further assessments are done.
All but one of the evacuations ordered during the height of the fires had been lifted by Wednesday.
In Saskatchewan, residents of Leader and Burstall were allowed to return home and the fire near Tompkins was under control, although a farmhouse and barn were lost. There was also a loss of some livestock near Richmound.
However, thousands of Saskatchewan residents were without electricity.
One one local state of emergency remained in effect in Alberta in the Crowsnest Pass area of southwestern Alberta, where 150 people were forced from their homes in Coleman.
While an evacuation order remained in place Wednesday, the mayor of Crowsnest Pass said things had calmed down somewhat.
“The wind has died down. We’ve got helicopters bucketing the area,” Mayor Blair Painter said.
“We were able to divert the fire so it hasn’t affected those areas. I’m hoping we’re able to get those people back just as soon as possible.”
Painter said the blaze was probably caused by downed power lines as a result of strong winds.
No one was injured and a welcome centre was set up in the nearby town of Pincher Creek, where more than 80 residents had registered.
Painter said it was a wild scene when the fire started.
“We had 130 kilometre-an-hour gusts. Probably about 100 kilometres an hour steady, and then gusts up to 130. Guys were even having a hard time standing up so, yeah, it was pretty scary.”
Painter said it didn’t appear any homes burned down. Two barns and two outbuildings were confirmed lost to the fire. A fish hatchery also sustained roof damage from the wind.
Alberta Agriculture and Forestry had 25 wildland firefighters supporting local fire departments. Four helicopters were being deployed.
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Note to readers: This is a corrected story to clarify that it was the firefighter who died in the Saskatchewan traffic accident. An earlier story based on RCMP information suggested a second man died in a single-vehicle collision in Saskatchewan.