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Military says investigation will determine cause of grass fire on CFB Suffield

Last Updated Sep 13, 2017 at 4:00 pm PDT

CFB SUFFIELD, Alta. – The military says it is investigating whether soldiers who were training sparked a grass fire in southeastern Alberta that torched a ranch, forced an evacuation and burned more than 160 cattle just outside the base.

The fire broke out Monday on Canadian Forces Base Suffield, northwest of Medicine Hat, after troops disposed of an unexploded artillery shell by blowing it up.

Maj. Hugh Atwell, acting commander of the base, said a fire crew was there as a precaution, but the explosion and gusty winds caused flames to spread quickly in the dry grass.

He said there was another fire Tuesday 20 kilometres away on the base that was downwind of the first blaze.

Atwell said it is not clear if the explosion caused the fire outside the base.

“At this time I cannot conclusively say that that fire was the result of the fire that started on base,” Atwell said Wednesday.

“We don’t conclusively know the attribution of all the fire damage. We are not saying that to be evasive. We are saying that because we honestly don’t know, and that needs to be confirmed by actual experts in relation to all of the areas that were fire-damaged Monday and Tuesday.”

On Monday night, flames were reported just north of CFB Suffield . They roared across a community pasture shared by ranchers in the area.

Officials declared a state of emergency as more than 20 fire trucks, 10 water trucks and other heavy equipment battled the flames with the help of volunteers.

Five farms with more than 40 people were evacuated as the flames burned one ranch, destroyed kilometres of fences and burned cattle.

Jordon Christianson, an Alberta official who helps administer the community pasture, said people in the area are sure the grass fire, which was under control Wednesday, originated on the base.

He said people have been shaken up by the fire, including ranchers who had to euthanize 160 cattle that were badly burned.

“It was a pretty tough day — just looking at the devastation and the fallout from the cattle,” he said. “It was hard. It has taken a toll.”

Atwell said at some point the military will review damage claims from people affected by the fire, but investigators need to do their work.

He said Canadian Forces members consider people outside the base to be their neighbours and want to do what they can to help.

“If your life’s work is defending your country, how else could you feel about something like this?” he said. “We are absolutely sympathetic and feel very strongly about what has happened.”

— By John Cotter in Edmonton