August 14th, 2018

Guest Column: Fire disaster never to be forgotten

By Medicine Hat News Opinon on January 29, 2018.

Oct. 17 was a trying day for many people throughout Western Canada with strong and destructive winds across much of the Prairie provinces. Some areas in the region saw those winds fuel wildfires that burned grassland, fence lines, crop land, homes, yards, livestock, wildlife and equipment. Damage from fire is always heartbreaking, but often is hard to comprehend in sparsely populated areas because often those wide open spaces are seen as nice landscapes or areas to drive through to get someplace else.

Roughly two per cent of the occupied homes in the Hilda community were lost. Imagine if out of every 50 homes you drove by on the way to work, one was burned to the ground — not even a shell of a structure remaining.Now imagine how devastating that would be to a community.

Now imagine if half of the businesses in your community had some damage from a disaster. Some would have immediately lost over half of their ability to generate income. Others would have long-term damages that would take at least 10 years to correct.How would that play out in the places you work, shop, go to the gym, eat out for supper, or be entertained? That is what some of these burned areas are facing.

Ranchers have lost almost all of their livestock.Farmers have seen unharvested crop and stubble burn up, and almost immediately the soil began eroding away in the Category 1 hurricane speed winds of that day. Some ranchers were mere weeks away from selling their calf crops — a payday that comes only once per year.Some farmers had all of their grain harvested and safely in grain bins — they thought. The fires burned under those bins and spoiled the grain inside.Farmers, too, only have one chance per year to make their income. And it was lost in those bins.

The communities in the fires are resilient and will rebuild. But they will never be the same.A life was lost.Others were changed forever.Some people will not rebuild and will move away instead. Others have lost everything that was handed down to them from their parents and grandparents.Still more have lost multiple years of income as they now have to start over with massive loans and operating credit, some much closer to the age of retirement than to the age when they started farming or ranching.

Now, there has been help offered on both sides of the boundary. Both provinces paid for animal carcass disposal.Saskatchewan has matched donations to the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association up to $100,000 and expanded their Provincial Disaster Assistance Program to cover these fires.Alberta has offered interest-free loans of $25,000 for two years for those affected.That help is appreciated but the scale of loss is not recognized in those numbers;$25,000 won’t build four miles of fence, when many ranchers have dozens of miles to rebuild;$25,000 will buy maybe 10 cows, but it won’t feed them.One local rancher lost more than 60 cows. And 60 calves ready to go to market at over $1,000 per calf.

Furthermore, this is not $25,000 of free money, it is just interest-free for two years. The value, in fact, is about $1,500 in interest saved in those two years.

Donations are always appreciated in times like this and our heartfelt thanks are expressed to all who have and will donate to any fire relief effort.More importantly, it is a time for both those affected and unaffected to prepare for the possibility of a next time.

What would you expect to be different?

For us, we need better communication between different levels of government — provincial and municipal.We also need better communication between each province. The fire at Hilda knew no borders — it crossed from Alberta to Saskatchewan and land was burned in three different municipalities.

We need better disaster assistance policy from those levels of government. The Alberta Disaster Recovery Program specifically excludes assistance to fires, but has provisions for assistance with flood events.

We also need all people to use some common sense. A fire is easiest to control if it isn’t started in the first place.And we need some teeth behind the regulations for non-compliance too, like fines that actually hurt the pocketbook.

So what can you do for your “next time?”First, think about personal responsibility. Don’t be the person who starts a wildfire in the first place. Second, think through what you would need in a disaster, find out if it is in place and easily accessible, and if not, make sure to talk to your MLAs, councillors and MPs about how to get that changed. Think to yourself “What would be an appropriate government response?”

I know we are.

Andy Kirschenman is chair of the Hilda Fire Recovery Committee.

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