Following the grassfires that occurred in Airdrie on Monday, Canadian Pacific Railway released a statement to Discover Airdrie following the incident.
“At approximately 1:30 p.m. on April 4, CP was alerted to a fire along its right of way. CP quickly deployed a team of trained specialists in response. CP's Emergency Response Officer was able to control the situation within a short period of time upon arriving at the scene,” the statement read in part.
Airdrie’s Fire Department in their own press release cited that a CP Rail train, travelling northbound, inadvertently ignited numerous fires in tall, dry grass and that CP Rail dispatched their Hazardous Materials Response Team to a location south of the city to extinguish a fire involving a large liquid propane storage tank which overheated before venting into the air.
While CP did say they appreciated the assistance and quick action of the Airdrie Fire Department and that the incident remains under investigation, questions have arisen in recent days, especially surrounding the issues of future risk mitigation and cost.
Kris Liivam, President of Arctic Fire Safety Services, a private wildfire firefighting company in Airdrie, said that railway companies need to be pressed on what their strategies are if another wildfire were to occur in the communities their trains travel through. One of the risk mitigation strategies is that of controlled burns.
“It would be up to the rail companies to undertake controlled burns and the reason for that is that the right away is their property,” Liivam said. “While Airdrie Fire did respond to their fire, it’s up to the rail companies to manage their own wildfire risk.”
Airdrie Fire Department's Deputy Chief Garth Rabel said that the question of controlled burns continues to be an evolving discussion and one that is had annually.
Liivam, whose company has been part of the Provincial Task Force for the Chuckegg Creek Fire (High Level), Kenow Fire (Waterton) and Horse River Fire (Fort McMurray) said that another risk mitigation factor is the deployment of PhosChek Fortify, which is a fire retardant - akin to the red spay that is seen being dropped from helicopters. He cited the fact that during the devastating 2021 Lytton wildfire in British Columbia, the railway companies used fire retardant. This fire retardant prevents the chemical reaction of fire from occurring.
“They started deploying it along their right aways to help mitigate the risk of the future wildfire during that time period,” Liivam said. “When you look at what's going on every year, between when the snow is leaving until we have green-up; this is a very delicate situation in the province. We essentially have a lot of fuel that's very easy to ignite.”
There is also the question of the cost and who ultimately will be footing the bill. According to Deputy Chief Rabel, if a fire has been determined to have been caused by a third party, which in the case of the grass fires, it was indeed determined that the numerous fires were caused by the train on the tracks, then the city of Airdrie works with their risk insurance management counterparts to assess the amount. Rabel said they will be working diligently to recoup any fees incurred, so as not to burden the municipal taxpayers. He did underline that because multiple municipal fire departments were involved, it may take time to assess the costs.
While the wildfires that occurred on Monday were dealt with in a prompt manner, Liivam says things could have gotten much worse.
“On Monday, we had high winds, we had dry fuels, but we had low temperatures; so, we were very fortunate in that aspect. If you look at what happens routinely in southern Alberta, they have high winds, high temperatures and they get massive wildfires that occur,” he said. “Because Airdrie is surrounded by a lot of fire fuels. If we see strong winds and add that to high temperatures and low humidity, we could have a very, very serious situation occurring.”
Liivam said that residents who live right next to a railway right of way can also help in mitigating the wildfire risks individually. This includes making sure grass in and around the area is cut short, cleaning out leaves from their gutters, as well as having a garden sprinkler in the backyard are all forms of risk mitigation.
“Everyone is mesmerized by the big wall of fire that you see on TV, but that actually causes very little damage. If you have a 30 meter or 100-foot separation between the radiant heat of the fire and the structure, the building will not burn. What actually causes the house to burn are the embers.”
According to the Alberta Wildfire Status Dashboard, there are currently three active wildfires in Alberta, all of which are under control. However, in 2022, there have been 30 wildfires thus far, 7 of which have occurred in the past week. 11 of the fires in 2022 occurred in the Calgary area.
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