Smouldering questions remain after Snake Trail fire

·7 min read

The Jan. 12 council meeting for the MD of Pincher Creek ignited a blaze of questions concerning firefighting costs associated with August’s Snake Trail fire.

Investigations showed the fire began in a ditch before spreading to Mark Burles’s property and neighbouring land. Even though they weren’t responsible for the fire, a group of landowners were billed $66,000 by the MD for firefighting costs, with Mr. Burles being held responsible for $52,603 of that amount.

Mr. Burles asked the MD to establish a framework for landowners to appeal bills. He also requested that the MD absorb the cost of extinguishing the fire.

The issue has sparked questions about how fires are fought, along with the rationale behind holding a landowner responsible for a fire beyond their power to prevent.

As it turns out, the rules behind controlling wildfires are a bit complicated.

No smoking gun

Firefighting costs first fall on whomever is responsible for starting the fire. Despite investigations, no cause for the Snake Trail fire was determined.

Deputy Chief Pat Neumann of Pincher Creek Emergency Services, who is trained in both fighting and investigating fires, says the fire had three different start points in ditches along the road.

Because burn areas grew progressively smaller toward the north, he believes a vehicle driving north somehow caused sparks to land in the ditch.

Fire investigations often rely on eye witnesses. Although Deputy Neumann spoke with numerous people in the area, nobody had seen anything, and no one has come forward with additional information since the fire.

“We’re a small department,” says Deputy Neumann. “We don’t have a whole team of investigators, say like the city of Calgary. For me to talk to every single person up there — it’s just not possible.”

Firefighting costs reviewed

Even though Mr. Burles wasn’t responsible for starting the fire and it began in an area outside of his control, monetary costs associated with firefighting — including firefighters’ wages — need to be covered.

Portions of residential taxes cover preparations, such as providing and maintaining equipment. Once crews are dispatched, however, Pincher Creek Emergency Services sends a bill directly to the municipality where the fire occurred. The municipality then invoices the landowner.

Municipalities are typically better suited to handle fire-related expenses as they have the administrative structure to follow up on payments. If a fire bill goes unpaid, the municipality can just add the accrued charges to the resident’s tax roll.

“Ultimately it’s not our decision to pass that on to the landowners,” says fire Chief David Cox.

The $52,000 bill has left many MD residents wondering what exactly it entails.

The hot, dry August conditions that allowed the Snake Trail fire to ignite prompted a multi-crew response. Though not every truck ended up fighting the fire, Chief Cox says equipment makes up only part of the $52,000 tab.

“The cost is not necessarily how many trucks you send — it’s the amount of manpower we need,” he says. Since the fire was larger than the Pincher Creek crew could handle on their own, firefighters from Cowley drove their trucks in to help.

An air tankers from Alberta Wildfire were also used, though the agency opted not to charge for the plane’s efforts — something Chief Cox says would have significantly increased the final bill.

Even though the fire was largely extinguished within five to six hours, crews remained on site extinguishing hot spots over the next three days to prevent reignition. Because the fire burned into a wooded area, mop-up efforts took a significant amount of time.

“There was a lot of ground fire, and that takes lots of work to put out. That’s why the bill was big,” Chief Cox says.

“We can’t take a chance on it getting started up or reigniting.”

Liability concerns

The circumstances that initially left Mr. Burles with a $52,000 bill are viewed by many to be unfair.

Nevertheless, with no information on who started the fire, payment for extinguishing the flames has to come from somewhere.

Complicating the matter are the limitations insurance companies have in a scenario like Snake Trail.

Landowners can purchase insurance that covers firefighting costs charged by municipalities. Additional insurance covers the expenses of fighting a fire a landowner is responsible for that spreads to their neighbours.

However, insurance providers need a known source to be able to hold individuals accountable. Doubly unfortunate for Mr. Burles was the fact his insurance for fire department charges covered only $10,000 of the total bill.

The incident has left many checking their own insurance plans and worrying that landowners might not call emergency services to deal with a fire in order to avoid an exorbitant bill.

Hypothetically, the situation could even devolve to a point where landowners prohibit fire crews from entering their property, endangering the surrounding area and those who live in it.

Provincial legislation, however, requires individuals to work to extinguish fires through their own efforts along with fire crews and authorities.

Under Section 22.C of the Forest and Prairie Protection Act, landowners must “take reasonable steps to control a fire for the purpose of preventing it from spreading onto land other than the person’s own.” Fire officials are also able to enlist any “able-bodied adult person” to assist in fighting a fire.

Contravening the act can lead to fines up to $100,000 and potential jail time.

Emergency budget

Costs for firefighting are established by the Pincher Creek Emergency Services Commission board. Two councillors from the MD and two from the town sit on the board, which is also attended by Chief Cox.

Firefighting fees were last updated in November 2019.

The manpower rate is $50 per hour per person. Generally, the cost for dispatching a fire engine is $400 per hour for each unit used, though Engine 71 is $100 per hour.

Scott Korbett, chairman of the commission board, says the prices were advised by Chief Cox and are comparable to other areas across Alberta.

Fires in town are typically much easier to contain and extinguish, leading to more manageable bill sizes. Wildfires, on the other hand, consume more resources.

Coun. Korbett says improvements could be made to the structure of PCESC to improve how crews respond to fires.

“I am not 100 per cent happy with the way the commission is set up,” he says. “I’m working with everybody to try and get it right.”

Changes proposed

MD councillors discussed some potential changes to emergency billing during its Jan. 26 meeting, identifying a number of topics they wish to speak with PCESC about.

First and foremost, council would like to stop billing on behalf of the commission. Instead of the MD playing the middleman, council hopes PCESC will instead directly bill residents.

Additionally, council asked administration to communicate with PCESC to recover costs for the Snake Trail fire, with the intent of hopefully removing the $66,000 billed out to landowners.

The MD also wishes to review pricing for firefighting to determine how reasonable the current fee schedule is. Similarly, the MD wants to know if the total cost of fighting the Snake Trail fire equals the billed amount sent or if a profit was accumulated.

Council also is hoping to receive clarification on how much current residential taxes cover firefighting costs.

“We want to respect the commission. We’re part of the commission and we want to see it work, and I believe there is a willingness there,” said chief administrative officer Troy MacCulloch. “But we’ve heard loud and clear from our residents that there are things that need to be looked at.”

The next meeting for the PCESC board is Jan. 28, though discussion on these issues will most likely occur in February.

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