September 12, 2017 7:39 pm
Updated: September 14, 2017 7:32 pm

Disposal of ordnance ‘possible’ cause of destructive fire in eastern Alberta: military

WATCH ABOVE: At least one home and six structures were destroyed after a huge grass fire east of Calgary. Global’s Bindu Suri reports.

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UPDATE: Southeastern Alberta farmers, ranchers demand compensation from military following massive fire

A massive grass fire that prompted a local state of emergency and evacuations south of Oyen, Alta. on Monday night may have been sparked by the military blowing up an unexploded ordnance, a Canadian Forces commander acknowledged on Tuesday.

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The fire also saw an elderly farmer lose his home and farm equipment, after neighbours woke him up to help him get to safety.

“It’s heartbreaking to lose something like that,” 89-year-old Morley Sarvis said of losing a house, six other structures, three tractors, two trucks and other machinery on his farm after the fire spread to his property.

“I took the farm over from my dad and I’ve been farming here ever since.”

READ MORE: Grass fire in southeast Alberta that led to state of emergency ‘stabilizing’

Watch below: An Alberta man has lost his home and business after a wildfire burned through his property. Bindu Suri reports.

Maj. Hugh Atwell, acting base commander for Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Suffield, said attributing the spread of the fire is fairly complex and needs to be done by an expert.

“That person isn’t me,” Atwell told Global News. “I can tell you that we did have a fire that started on base yesterday, subsequent to an operation to dispose of a piece of unexploded ordnance. A number of assets from both the base and off-base were deployed to put that fire out.”

As a precaution, a fire truck was brought near to where the ordnance was being blown up, Atwell said, adding the ordnance posed a risk to “life and limb” of people at the base.

He said getting the fire under control proved to be “very challenging” and crews were still battling the blaze Tuesday morning when a mandatory evacuation order for the area was lifted.

According to Atwell, the ordnance disposal took place at about 3:30 p.m. The Special Areas Board, the local rural municipality, said the grass fire was sparked north of CFB Suffield, near Remount Community Pasture. But several area residents told Global News they had heard to started on the base.

“I was told it started in the Suffield block and they were bombing, doing their practising and it jumped the fence into a community pasture close to Buffalo,” evacuee Michelle Anderson said.

Atwell said he expected investigators to learn more about where the CFB Suffield fire spread and said most grass fires that start on the base are contained to the base. He added the base has had more fires this year because of “arid” conditions.

“Nobody applying due diligence and caution would deliberately start a fire out in the … training area in very dry conditions.”

A local state of emergency was declared overnight and 40 area residents fled and went to an evacuation centre set up at the nearby Bindloss School. The evacuation order was lifted at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday and the fire was later deemed to be under control.

A fire burns in southeastern Alberta south of Oyen near the Saskatchewan border on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017.

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Twenty fire engines, 10 water trucks, seven graders and three fuel trucks helped battle the blaze along with fire crews from several different jurisdictions.

Atwell said he was appreciative of fire crews coming to help put out the CFB Suffield fire and said he was “truly sorry and saddened by the loss that has been experienced by those people, primarily northeast of the training area.”

“That feeling will not change regardless of the attribution of it,” he added.

Atwell said that although it was too early to determine if the CFB Suffield fire caused the damage to nearby properties, there were avenues people could pursue for compensation if it turns out the military was responsible.

“In the event that individuals believe that they have a claim for damage against the Crown, there is a process to follow that provides for addressing those claims.”

The town of Oyen is located about 280 kilometres east of Calgary.

-With files from Bindu Suri and Melissa Gilligan

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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