Fire chief answers Snake Trail fire questions at MD meeting

·5 min read

With a hot, dry summer at the doorstep, rural fire safety is a paramount issue. Last summer’s Snake Trail fire revealed administrative issues around firefighting bills that the MD of Pincher Creek has been trying to resolve ever since.

Pincher Creek Emergency Services Commission currently sends bills directly to the municipality where the fire occurred. The municipality pays the bill, then invoices the landowner.

When MD residents were billed $66,000 for last summer’s Snake Trail fire, however, the situation ignited debate around how fair the PCESC’s firefighting rates were.

MD council decided in January to ask the commission to bill property owners directly. Council also wanted PCESC to recover the costs of the Snake Trail fire and requested a review of current fees.

Council has paid the Snake Trail bill and a discussion about absorbing the cost was held during the April 13 meeting. For now, the only decision approved was waiving the residents’ payment deadline in the hope that the commission would adjust the firefighting charges during its April 22 meeting.

After review, the $66,000 invoice remains unchanged.

Since PCESC meetings are not open to the public, administration invited Chief Dave Cox to discuss the bill at the May 11 council meeting.

During his presentation, Chief Cox summarized crews’ responses to the fire. Although conditions were dangerously dry, the quick work of local landowners, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry helicopters, and local firefighters — coupled with the fact the fire ran into a freshly harvested hay field that was still green — limited its progression. Within six hours, the fire was under control.

“Overall, the fire was limited to a fairly small size considering the conditions and the potential of what it could have been,” the fire chief said.

The majority of the firefighting cost resulted from crews needing three days to put out spot fires and ensure hot spots among treed areas were fully extinguished. While not uncommon for the detachment to leave such work to landowners, the Snake Trail conditions warranted extensive attention.

“In this circumstance, there was just too much to risk to everybody downwind from us to not be actioning this fire,” said Chief Cox.

In the face of disaster, landowners affected by the fire expressed gratitude for the help they received protecting their property.

“We’re very, very appreciative,” said Jim Welsch. “Complete strangers, people I’d never even seen before, stopped and helped put it out. Of course, I’m thankful to my neighbours and the fire departments as well. We’re a wonderful community, and we’re grateful for all the help.”

That said, Mr. Welsch continued, MD residents who were invoiced for the fire had legitimate questions and concerns about the bill. Even though the fire happened in August, landowners didn’t receive notice until January.

“Why did you wait so long to send a bill out? What was the delay about?” Mr. Welsch asked Chief Cox.

“I do know it took us a while to put all the numbers together,” replied Chief Cox. “We also had to wait for some feedback from Forestry because this invoice has no reimbursement to Agriculture and Forestry and I was in discussion with those guys about forgiving their portion of the bill, which they did.”

Had the ministry not forgiven their portion, added Chief Cox, the bill would have been twice the amount.

The final cost was determined by the total number of hours spent putting out the blaze. Individual residents were then billed by the MD using the municipality’s geographic information system to figure out what percentage of the total fire occurred on whose property.

The process led to concerns about fairness, since firefighters spent more time fighting the fire in wooded areas than grassland. A property owner that had fire on their land extinguished quickly would still technically be paying for firefighting on someone else’s.

The fact the residents were on the hook for a fire they didn’t cause was also an issue. “I inherited the fire from the ditch,” said Mark Burles, who was invoiced for $52,000 in firefighting fees. No cause was ultimately identified, though investigation showed the fire started in the ditch off the road, which is MD land.

The fire’s circumstances, said chief administrative officer Troy MacCulloch, revealed administrative gaps the MD wanted to address.

“With any government we have to go with the rules that are in place right now, but that doesn’t mean rules can’t change,” he said.

“That’s why we’re trying to have this dialogue,” he continued. “We’re trying to involve the chief and we’re trying to involve the chair of the commission to find something that’s not punitive to our residents but actually covers the cost of fighting the fires.”

Part of that process, CAO MacCulloch added, was deciding if the current firefighting rates are fair and how much of the municipal levy already paid by residents covered firefighting costs.

Despite the MD not committing to absorbing the Snake Trail fire invoice, Reeve Brian Hammond said the municipality was considering it and would make a decision soon.

“We will have to make a decision as a local authority as to what percentage of the cost is borne by who and in what magnitude,” he said. “It’s been a source of very serious consideration, I can say that with all sincerity.”

“Stay with this, we are moving ahead. We will deal with this issue,” the reeve added.

Sean Oliver, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Shootin' the Breeze