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Grass fire devastates County and Siksika Nation causing evacuations and damage

By Monique Massiah, Strathmore Standard

Fence posts still smouldering outside a home on Siksika First Nation on October 18 one day after a devastating grass fire.

Fence posts still smouldering outside a home on Siksika First Nation on October 18 one day after a devastating grass fire.

Residents of Gleichen were forced to evacuate late Tuesday night with high winds causing one of several Wheatland County area grass fires bearing down on the hamlet, while large swaths of Siksika Nation were also devastated by fire.

The Gleichen area fire lead to a State of Emergency being declared throughout the county and residents were evacuated to the town of Strathmore and the Village of Standard for the night.

“The fire just spread really, really fast because of the wind being so high,” said Fran Miller from Gleichen.

Just out back behind her house she showed a large area of burned land only a few steps from her back door. The earth around Gleichen to the north of the hamlet was scorched by the fast moving fire. Even the cemetery was not spared.

“We were very fortunate,” said Miller. There was only a ditch stopping the fire from coming onto their property.

Miller explained that the county maintains the public property behind their home.

Firefighters and peace officers made the rounds of the community knocking on doors and alerting people to the dangers of the fire.

Miller and her family were ready to go, as they packed up their motor home ready to leave.

“I put stuff in the truck and my husband brought his motor home around the front. When the fire passed we came back home,” she said.

For the public's safety part of the local highways were closed to traffic as visibility was severely reduced.

At Siksika Nation large parts of the area lay burned by fire and still smouldering the morning after.

The community of Stobart was badly hit with scorched earth all around homes.

The day after the fire Siksika chief and council held emergency meetings and then a press conference to discuss the depth of destruction in the community.

Chief Joe Weasel Child, band councillor Marsha Wolf Collar, and band councillor/chairperson Bradford Little Chief spoke of the devestation.

“We had people coming in that were stranded on the highway,” said Weasel Child.

“We have an emergency plan we want to make sure that everybody’s on top of it, we are reviewing it in a couple of days after the assessment,” he said.

He explained that Siksika Nation is one big community where everybody knows each other.

He noted that firefighters from Wheatland County and Vulcan responded within an hour of the emergency being called, helping fire and emergency services from Siksika Nation.

“We wanted to express our thanks to the surrounding communities as well,” said Weasel Child.

Siksika Nation has had an emergency procedure's plan in place for about 15 years.

The Chief explained that he was contacted by the Nation's emergency contact when the fire reached the south west portion of the reserve.

That area is not as densely occupied with homes as other areas.

“There's a big community pasture that went. The fire went very quickly from when I got the first call to probably 15 minutes later, it had jumped the Bow River,” he said.

“A lot of people are still in shock, so we have our crisis unit out there, we have our first responders and our technical crews doing assessments and we are meeting regularly to assess the situation.”

The First Nation began emergency evacuations less than an hour after the fire struck.

“We had our first responders and the RCMP going door-to-door,” said Weasel Child. “The police had to kick-in doors where there was no answer, to make sure that there was nobody there.”

Five houses were destroyed by the fire and 300 were affected by smoke damage.

The Siksika Deerfoot Sportsplex is now acting as an emergency response centre for the community.

“We're just thankful that there were not serious injuries or anything worse,” he said.

On October 18 Wheatland County offered grief counselling sessions in Gleichen for individuals from 3:30 to 7 p.m. The session is co-hosted by Alberta Health Services.

“Even if they didn't loose anything we want them to come in because they may not even realize that they have been affected,” explained Wheatland County communications co-ordinator Lisa Bastarache.

“It was such a stressful situation that everybody was in. It's processing the events of the last two days,” she said.

At approximately 4 p.m. on October 18 the fires had been brought under control in Wheatland County but there are still hot spots that are being monitored.

“Right now we don't have any out of control fires, but we also have wind. We are asking people to be vigilant and if they see anything, phone 911,” she said.

Wheatland County has nine fire departments that are actively fighting the fires.

“They've all been doing it, taking turns. Last night it was all hands on deck. Now they are taking turns so they are not burnt out, and so we are not leaving any area of the county uncovered either,” said Bastarache.

Initial reports of lost homes in Gleichen were false, there were no homes destroyed, but there are buildings, for example garages, within the hamlet boundaries that were burnt. There were a number of rural homes that were lost to the blaze, but county officials do not yet have an official count. So far there have not been any reports of injuries or lives lost. There was a firefighter who was injured on the evening of October 17, but they have been released from hospital.

There is presently no timeline as to when a complete assessment of the fire damage will be finished.