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Massive southern Alberta grass fires force 3,500 to leave homes

Grass fire and smoke stop traffic on Highway 509 on the Blood Reserve west of Lethbridge, Alberta, Sept. 10, 2012. A rapidly moving grass fire in southern Alberta has prompted officials to order everyone in a town southeast of Calgary to evacuate.

Jaime Vedres/The Canadian Press

More than 3,500 people have been evacuated, at least one building has been destroyed and local states of emergency have been declared in several southern Alberta communities Monday as two huge grass fires are being fueled by powerful winds.

The first fire, which officials believe started on the Blood Reserve, near Lethbridge, about 220 kilometres southeast of Calgary, jumped the Oldman River. A second wildfire has now forced the evacuation of Milk River, which is southeast of Lethbridge. A sudden drastic change in winds has pushed about 800 residents to seek refuges in Raymond, to the north, after first being told by officials to flee south, to Coutts, at the U.S. border.

That first blaze sparked the evacuation of the nearby town of Coalhurst, where about 500 homes are in the path of the swift-moving fire. Residents had been told to seek refuge to the north along Highway 25 at the Picture Butte Community Centre, but the roadway quickly became clogged with traffic making the escape route slow-going and then, it was closed when "people gawking" at the smoke caused a head-on collision, according to Lethbridge County Reeve Lorne Hickey.

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Between 300 and 400 residents of  Mountain Meadows and Sunsets Acres as well as Township 8-22 in his county have also been told to get out.

Mr. Hickey said it's unclear what sparked the blaze.

"There's lots of rumours going around, but nobody knows," he said, adding that it has been hot, dry and windy in the region. Some reports have suggested a downed electrical line mid-afternoon caused the fire. By dinnertime, the size of the fire was also unclear.

"A plane in the air couldn't tell because it's too smoky," Mr. Hickey said.

Lethbridge Deputy Fire Chief Wayne Johnson said the city and county is throwing every emergency worker at the fire and has called in off-duty firefighters to help. Fire breaks are being dug to try to contain the blaze.

"We really need to stop it," Mr. Hickey said of the fire, "If we can't control it, who knows [what will happen.]"

He said there was confirmation of one torched building and possibly more. No injuries from the fire itself have been reported. The status of those involved in the collision in unknown.

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Dennis Cassie, Coalhurst's mayor, told local CBC radio, the scene in his community of close to 2,300 was "chaotic" as everyone was told to leave.

While the city of Lethbridge is under a state of emergency, residents in the neighbourhoods of Indian Battle Heights, Heritage Heights and West Highlands are being told to prepare for possible evacuation. A mandatory evacuation ordered was order for the Westside Trailer Court. Affected residents are being told to go to the Fritz Sick Centre or the ENMAX Centre.

City officials also told residents to stay off their cell phones to "keep lines clear for emergency services."

In some cases, residents had only minutes to get out. Others are now preparing to leave.

Lethbridge Grade 12 student Shelby Stark turned to Twitter to share her fears.

"Worst feeling ever is having to pack all your important stuff because you are on the verge of being evacuated," she wrote.

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Heavy smoke has severely reduced visibility and created dangerous road conditions. Highway 3, the main east-west artery in the province's south, has been closed between Lethbridge and Coalhurst.

Officials in Lethbridge also asked residents to check on neighbours who don't speak English as a first language as well as the elderly and disabled.

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About the Author
Dawn Walton

Dawn Walton has been based in Calgary for The Globe and Mail since 2000. Before leaving Toronto to head West, she won a National Newspaper Award and was twice nominated for the Michener Award for her work with the Report on Business. More

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