Emergency personnel and volunteers from across southwestern Alberta battled a fire Wednesday that burned a swath seven miles long and three quarters of a mile wide northwest of Fort Macleod.
The quick response got the fire under control five hours after it started and prevented more devastation.
“They’re pretty remarkable people,” MD of Willow Creek chief administrative office Cynthia Vizzutti said. “They came from everywhere.”
MD of Willow Creek Reeve Henry Van Hierden praised the firefighters and other volunteers.
“It’s not the first time,” Van Hierden said of the strong response. “Everybody fears the worst so they’re out there to help. Most of them have seen it or been around a fire before. They’re always eager to help put it out.”
Fanned by strong winds with gusts up to 110 km-h the fire started about eight kilometres west of Highway 2 and north of Secondary Highway 785.
By the time it was under control the fire, which promoted the MD of Willow Creek at 1:11 p.m. to declare a state of emergency, had destroyed 15 “significant” structures such as a riding arena, barns and sheds and miles of pasture.
“It was bad, really bad, but nobody died,” Vizzutti said.
Officials from the MD of Willow Creek and the Alberta Fire Commissioner’s office are still investigating but believe they have located where the fire started.
“It looks like it was the improper storage of hot coals from a wood stove,” Vizzutti said Friday.
RCMP have not laid any charges related to the fire.
Efforts to support people who suffered losses in the Willow Creek Fire are already under way.
A fund-raising barbecue is Friday, Jan. 13 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Trinity United Church in Fort Macleod.
People will be asked to make a donation to the relief fund in return for a hamburger, drink and chips.
Accounts where cash donations can be made have been set up at the CIBC and ATB Financial branches in Fort Macleod.
ATB Financial in Granum, Claresholm, Nanton and Pincher Creek are also accepting donations to the Prairie Wildfire Account.
Fort Macleod Fire Department responded first to the blaze and fire crews from Granum and Claresholm were rolling soon after.
Fourteen fire departments ultimately helped fight the blaze.
Director of emergency management Travis Coleman set up an emergency operations centre at the MD of Willow Creek office in Claresholm.
Evacuation orders were sent to people living in the path of the fire and disaster centres were set up at the community centres in Fort Macleod and Claresholm.
Members of the RCMP and Alberta Sheriffs assisted at the scene stopping north- and southbound traffic on Highway 2 and diverting it to Highway 519. Volker Stevin crews helped close roads to keep people safe.
Ambulances were stationed at key locations to provide support, including to firefighters.
“The effort was very well-co-ordinated,” Vizzutti said.
With the help of local residents who arrived with front-end loaders and other heavy equipment, crews protected houses and beat back the fire when it jumped Highway 2.
“The biggest fear we had was that if that thing got away and got into the river valley, how were we going to get it out,” Vizzutti said.
While crews were fighting the fire near Fort Macleod, downed power lines started another fire near Nanton that destroyed or severely damaged five houses and burned an area about 36 square miles.
The state of emergency ended at 10:16 a.m. Thursday.
Two firefighters were hurt when a pumper from the Moon River Fire Department was flipped by the wind onto the roof. One was treated and released and the other was transported to Calgary hospital.
Two other firefighters were hospitalized, one from exhaustion and one from smoke inhalation.
“They’re both fine,” Vizzutti said.
The strong winds and dry conditions, which had prompted the MD of Willow Creek in December to enact a fire ban, made a bad situation worse.
“We have a way higher chance of having fires like this in the winter than we have in the summer,” Vizzutti said.