Farmers still waiting for compensation from CFB Suffield grass fire
36,500 hectares burned in southeastern Alberta, killing cattle and scorching pastures
By Kate Ayers
Farmers and ranchers in southeastern Alberta await compensation for damages caused by the grass fire that started at CFB Suffield in September.
The fire sparked when soldiers blew up undetonated artillery on the base, according to a CBC news article today.
On Sept. 11, the day of the incident, there was a fire ban in place for the area. The temperature reached upwards of 32 C with west winds.
Of the 36,500 hectares that were touched by the fire, about 6,500 hectares were outside of the military base’s borders. The damages caused by the fire were “tragic,” Lt.-Col Mike Onieu, the CFB Suffield commander, admitted to CBC.
Area farmers and ranchers have been affected both financially and emotionally by the fire.
“I’m trying to get a handle on what a cow that was burnt, that suffered … I don’t know. I can’t get a handle on a price for something like that,” Ivan Schlaht, a farmer who lost 98 cattle in the blaze, said to CBC.
“A million dollars still wouldn’t cover what I lost because of the anguish the cattle and myself went through.”
The day following the fire, one of Schlaht’s friends put down animals that remained alive but suffered from injuries.
Daryl Swenson is another farmer who was impacted by the grass fire. Over 500 hectares of his crop and grass land were burned. He has borrowed $60,000 to cover replacement winter feed and fence repairs. However, the top soil the fire stripped from the land cannot be replaced.
“Top soil is what everything grows on, it’s the most valuable resource on the farm. Without top soil, you have nothing,” Swenson said to CBC.
Swenson said the base has not been good neighbours in the past and people are frustrated with the fires started during training exercises.
Onieu personally apologized to residents affected by the blaze and acknowledges that the compensation process is slow.
“It creates a huge amount of difficulty for people who are trying to pay their bills, get their feed for the season, replace their livestock. Yes, that is difficult,” Onieu said to CBC.
The fire also burned 4,200 hectares of the Remount community pasture. The loss of this grazing land could cost the local government some $45,000 in grazing revenue in 2018, according to Jordan Christianson, chair of the special areas board.
Furthermore, the native grassland pasture could be out of commission for three to seven years, according to Amanda Miller, a rangeland agronomist. The length of time the grassland recovery will take depends upon the amount of moisture received over the next few years. Over 900 cattle grazed the pasture and now farmers will have to find grassland elsewhere for their livestock.
Although the base apologized for the fire, Swenson is disappointed the military hasn’t provided an insurance adjuster to help assess the losses.
“We’ve had a lot of expenses that a lot of us are paying interest on. So, we are out that money for that much time. The sooner, the better he’s out here,” said Swenson.
People living close to the base want a fire guard to be put up around some of the base’s perimeter but Onieu said it won’t be built next year.
However, he said a firefighter will be hired during “critical fire prone periods of the year,” and volunteer firefighters may become equipped to help fight fires on the base.
Onieu also said CFB Suffield plans to host a “technical briefing” in January for residents in the area but a date has not yet been set.
Photo Credit: Kat72