MD evaluating fire permits for large burns

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The MD of Foothills is reconsidering its requirements for large-scale fire permits after a controlled burn Dec. 29 to Jan. 13 affected surrounding residents.

Priddis-area landowner Pat Harvie decided to initiate a Fire Safe program on his land in the fall after seeing the devastating effects of wildfires in 2017, when 28 wildfires burned in the province.

He said the first step was a perimeter timber removal followed by acquiring a burn permit to dispose of the brush from the MD of Foothills.

“Our property consists of 1,820 acres and is surrounded on all sides by heavy, dense, tinder-dry timber that was extremely vulnerable to wildfires potentially coming in from surrounding heavily-timbered park lands last summer,” said Harvie. “As landowners and ranchers in an area on the cusp of forested green areas and large wooded parks, we felt we had a responsibility to not only ensure the fire guard safety of our land but also the fire guard safety of the lands that surround us.”

He said they waited until fire bans were lifted and snowfall made burning safe. The Harvies received the necessary burning permits and began lighting their burn piles on Dec. 29.

That’s when the issues rose – because the smoke did not.

Cold temperatures in the last three days of December brought a temperature inversion, a weather phenomenon that sees cold air trapped below warm air, which acts as a barrier and does not allow pollution or smoke to pass through.

As a result, the smoke that came from the burn piles was forced back down on residents in the surrounding area, causing health problems for some and discomfort for others.

MD Coun. Suzanne Oel was among the neighbours affected by the inversion.

“At -35 (Celsius) I woke up to smoke filling my house, and I went outside to see if there was a fire close to my house, because otherwise why would I have so much smoke and fumes filling my house?” said Oel.

She called the dispatch line to find out whether there was a fire close by and learned there was a controlled burn happening. Residents with burn permits are required to call the dispatch centre and inform them of the burn so if calls are received they can see whether a permitted, controlled burn is the cause of smoke or fire.

“The impact of the inversion had pushed the fumes down on my house, and I had to shut my furnace off at -35,” said Oel. “It was so bad outside I was nauseated immediately. Everything I had inside the house and outside the house smelled like smoke, like I was standing right next to a fire. The house got cold before I was able to get a reprieve enough to turn the furnace back on.”

Some residents approached MD council on Jan. 10 looking for a solution to the problem.

They cited health issues like asthma flare-ups, which kept one woman home from her job as a school teacher. Many had to run air purifiers in their homes and wait for the smoke to clear to wash furniture and linens, which were all contaminated by smoke.

Some expressed fear for the safety of their own properties, which they felt were in danger with so many burn piles moldering at once.

Oel said MD council listened to the concerns and the issue with large-scale burning permits will be fully evaluated by the Foothills Fire Department Fire Board, with any recommendations brought back to council for consideration.

“We like to be responsive to things that are kind of new to us, and this is a situation that is new that we want to respond to,” said Oel. “We need to look at how people were affected and characteristics like the cold and inversion – things that impact the neighbours.”

She said they will also look into questions such as how the fire department would be able to respond in extreme cold temperatures with such a large-scale burn, should things go awry.

Foothills Fire Chief Jim Smith said Harvie acted in accordance with his burn permit. It was weather conditions that caused the problems, he said.

The burn was called off entirely on Jan. 9 and piles were smouldering until the fire department could extinguish them. The Harvies’ burn permit has been suspended for one year.

“We talked to him about having seasoned wood instead of burning green wood and [Harvie] was amenable to that,” said Smith. “He really stepped up and really played a key role in making this whole situation very smooth.”

In order to run a controlled burn, a Foothills resident must get a permit from a fire guardian or the Foothills Fire Department. There are some weather-related conditions related to wind, but not temperature.

If the weather could have been predicted, Smith said a permit likely wouldn’t have been issued. Inversions are difficult to see coming, he said.

“We’ll have to look into other things such as temperature inversions, better weather-related conditions, that sort of thing, that played a major part in this,” said Smith. “We’ll be looking at it as a fire board and we’ll see how that works out.”

The next meeting of the board is Feb. 22. Any recommended changes will come to MD council for approval, he said.

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