Family members and residents in Cypress County are mourning the death of James Hargrave, a firefighter who died battling wildfires near the southeastern Alberta hamlet of Hilda. RCMP said the victim was a volunteer firefighter who died while operating a water truck aiding efforts to stop the fire’s spread to Saskatchewan.
A statement provided to Global News by a family member said loved ones are grateful for all of the support and kindness from friends, neighbours and the community.
“James was a proud volunteer firefighter, rancher and steward of the land,” reads the statement. “But his love for his wife, children and family surpassed all else.
“Our hearts are broken at the sudden loss.”
A statement from the county confirmed Hargrave was the Walsh Fire Station firefighter who passed away “in the line of duty.”
“James was community-minded and joined the fire services to help and protect residents far and near,” reads the statement.
“He was a great father and will be dearly missed by his wife, children, extended family, friends, neighbours and fellow first responders.”
Alberta RCMP described the tragic death in a statement released Wednesday afternoon, explaining the grassfire started in the county near Township Road 180 on Tuesday, about five miles west of Highway 41. RCMP said it grew rapidly, quickly moving east because of high winds and dry fuels, spurring the evacuation of Hilda and Schuler.
RCMP said the fire continued moving east into Saskatchewan and Cypress County firefighters joined local crews in the battle near the communities of Leader and Burstall.
“During the firefighting efforts, a collision occurred between water truck and pickup truck,” Cpl. Curtis Peters said in a statement. “The lone occupant of the water truck, a 34-year-old male and volunteer firefighter from Cypress County, died at the scene.”
“This tragic loss of life speaks to the danger that this emergency posed and also to the heroism of the volunteers who sacrifice in service of their neighbours.”
Saskatchewan RCMP said local crews responded to the collision about 10 kilometres south of Burstall at about midnight Tuesday. The water-tanker truck had lost control, rolled over and then collided with a second vehicle.
Saskatchewan RCMP said the driver of the second vehicle suffered minor injuries.
“It is unknown at this time if fire and/or smoke in the area were factors in the collision,” Saskatchewan police said in a statement. “Leader RCMP, with assistance from an RCMP Traffic Reconstructionist and the provincial coroner’s office are continuing to investigate.”
The RCMP extended condolences to Hargrave’s family, friends and colleagues in the Cypress County Fire Department.
Watch below: Video submitted by Ashley Herrmann shows smoke billowing from a Cypress County wildfire burning in southeastern Alberta on Thursday afternoon.
The director of the Alberta Emergency Management provincial operations centre also shared his condolences with family and first responders.
“I can say with profound sadness that one Alberta resident did pass away in Saskatchewan as a result of a motor vehicle accident,” Scott Long said.
“Grass fires, especially with that kind of wind, they move incredibly fast, and even professionals find themselves in precarious situations.”
Alberta politicians share condolences
Alberta Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier posted two photos of Hargrave to Twitter Wednesday afternoon. A spokesperson said they were taken in September 2016 as Hargrave showed the ministers the ranch he was working on near Medicine Hat following a stakeholders meeting.
“My heart breaks for the family of James Hargrave, a well-respected young Alberta rancher,” he wrote. “I count myself lucky to have met him.”
“Today we mourn the death of James Hargrave, a Cypress County firefighter from the Walsh Fire Station, who died in the line of duty fighting the wildfires in southern Alberta,” Jean wrote.
“Every day, first responders across Alberta run toward danger and tragedy so that others can safely run from it. Last night, Alberta lost a hero and a family lost a husband and father.”
Fellow UCP candidate Jason Kenney also knew Hargrave personally and shared his thoughts on Twitter.
“James was a friend of mine,” Kenney wrote. “A loving, young father & great Alberta rancher from one of AB’s original ranch families. Unspeakably sad. RIP.”
Robert Wanner, the NDP MLA for Medicine Hat, also issued a statement about Hargrave’s passing on Wednesday.
“James’ passing cut like a knife into the soul of our community,” Wanner said. “And while such wounds heal, his death will leave a scar.
“I can safely say the wounded heart of all residents of southeastern Alberta now beat support for James’ wife and children, friends and family.”
Wanner said he got to know Hargrave after he was elected in Medicine Hat and that his “love of Alberta was infectious and his priority was always to protect the land for the benefit of the community and future generations.”
Saskatchewan men injured trying to fight fire
On Wednesday, the RCMP said two men were also seriously injured at around midnight in Saskatchewan while trying to fight an area fire on their own land. A 27-year-old man and 43-year-old man were found in the Gull Lake/Tompkins area and a call was made for medical assistance.
The two were transported to hospital in Medicine Hat and then Calgary. RCMP didn’t provide an update on their condition.
Emergency alert over in Cypress County
As of 1:08 p.m., the Alberta government said an emergency alert in Cypress County had ended. Officials said at 9 a.m. on Wednesday the wildfire in the Hilda and Schuler areas of Cypress County had been extinguished.
Residents of Hilda and Schuler hamlets, located about 70 kilometres north-east of Medicine Hat, were asked to evacuate their homes Tuesday afternoon, after an Alberta Emergency Alert was issued due to a “serious grass and wildfire.”
The emergency situation in the Hilda area was just one of several serious fire-related situations in southern Alberta on Tuesday night.
WATCH: Wildfires break out in southern Alberta on Tuesday
With files from Rahul Kalvapalle