A volunteer firefighter from southern Alberta died while battling a blaze that straddled the border with Saskatchewan Tuesday night — one of almost a dozen windswept wildfires that forced hundreds of people to flee and torched homes in several communities.
RCMP announced Wednesday afternoon that James Hargrave, a 34-year-old volunteer firefighter with Cypress County Fire Services — which handles the southeast corner of Alberta — died as he worked to fight a wildfire that started near Hilda.
The hamlet lies northeast of Medicine Hat and about 375 kilometres southeast of Calgary.
The fire was pushed east by strong winds across the border into Saskatchewan, prompting evacuations on both sides of the provincial border.
Hargrave, 34, was among the Alberta firefighters who crossed into Saskatchewan to fight it near the communities of Leader and Burstall.
He was driving a large water-tanker truck that rolled after colliding with a pickup truck about 10 kilometres south of Burstall.
"He was a very, very strong person in our community," said Alberta member of the legislature Drew Barnes. "He was a pillar of the ranching community, a strong family and community person."
"James was very community-minded and joined the fire services to help and protect residents far and near. He was a great father and will be dearly missed by his wife, children, extended family, friends, neighbours and fellow first responders," Cypress County said in a release.
Hargrave ran a ranch north of Walsh, Alta., and was the father of four children, said Chris Sauer, a resident of the hamlet. Walsh had a population of 60 in the 2016 census.
"It's terrible. It will devastate the community for a while here. He'll surely be missed," Sauer said.
The driver of the second vehicle in the collision was left with minor injuries.
On Tuesday, fires were burning across the province from the Alberta Foothills in the west to the Saskatchewan border in the east.
Officials issued numerous evacuation orders in communities that were in the path of the flames, which were whipped by gusts up to 110 km/h in some areas.
Evacuations were ordered in Airdrie, north of Calgary, as well as Coleman, in Alberta's southwest corner, and in Wheatland County, east of Calgary, the municipal district of Willow Creek, just west of Lethbridge, and in Cypress County and the municipal district of Acadia on Alberta's eastern edge, where the flames raged on both sides of the Saskatchewan border.
There were 10 fires affecting 11 communities, and about 500 people were forced to leave their homes, according to Scott Long, the head of operations for the Alberta Emergency Management Agency.
All but one of the evacuations ordered during the height of the fires had been lifted by Wednesday after the winds subsided and rain doused the flames in some parts of southern Alberta.
But many residents of the Crowsnest Pass community of Coleman are still waiting in nearby Pincher Creek as crews continue to fight the out of control wildfire threatening their homes.
Here is the latest information on the fires and the evacuations:
The Sharp Hill neighbourhood southeast of Airdrie was placed under a sudden evacuation order Tuesday afternoon as a grass fire raced toward homes. Residents took shelter at Genesis Place, a recreation centre in the city.
Rocky View County officials said one home was destroyed by the fire and another was damaged.
"It was scary. I've been out here 20 years and I've never seen a wind like that, ever," said Airdrie resident Jerry Anderson.
"When I saw that fire, I thought, yeah, we're in trouble."
Sharp Hill residents were allowed to return home late Tuesday night.
In the Crowsnest Pass area, the wildfire between the Sentinel Industrial Park and Coleman is still out of control and about 150 residents had to leave their homes.
Highway 3 west of Coleman was closed to traffic but has since reopened, with officials urging caution for drivers in the area. An evacuation order remains in place for parts of Coleman.
McLaren Ridge, Carbondale Trailer Court, and MacGillivary Flats are evacuated, "and no one should be in these areas," the Alberta Emergency Management Agency said.
Residents of Willow Drive were allowed to return home Wednesday afternoon. Alberta Emergency Alert said residents must visit the municipal office before going home.
Everyone else in Coleman should be prepared to evacuate on short notice.
A reception centre is open at the Vertical Church in Pincher Creek, located at 1200 Ken Thorton Blvd.
Two barns and two outbuildings were destroyed by fire. The local fish hatchery was also damaged, provincial officials said in a release.
The mayor of Crowsnest Pass, Blair Painter, said the situation is improving now that the wind has died down and helicopters are dropping water on the flames.
He said that so far it doesn't appear that any homes have been lost.
Painter said it is believed downed power lines caused the fire, which began about a kilometre west of the community.
Fires that were threatening communities in Wheatland County, east of Calgary, have been brought under control, officials said. Rain overnight helped to slow the fires.
Residences in and around Gleichen and Carseland were evacuated and a local state of emergency declared as the wildfires closed in. People were allowed to return to their homes on Wednesday after spending the night in emergency shelters in Standard and Strathmore.
Four homes were destroyed in the hamlet of Gleichen, two more were lost in the hamlet of Stobart, and two others on the Siksika Nation were destroyed, the province said in a release.
Norbert Bear Chief, who lost his home on the Siksika Nation, suffered burns to his head as he tried to save his property by dousing his house in water. He said he had to drive through a wall of flames to get out alive, but lost his beloved cats to the fire.
"There's nothing to be proud of anymore, it's no longer God's Garden of Eden. People are telling me you can start all over again," he said.
"I don't want to start all over again."
Chief Joe Weasel Child said one elder was treated for burns and several other people were taken to hospital with respiratory problems.
Motorists are being urged to be cautious driving through the area on Highway 901 because livestock could be at large after fences were destroyed by fire.
Schools in the area were closed Wednesday.
A second fire, ignited by a train that caught fire near the Agrium Plant, was burning near Highway 910 and Range Road 264.
The fire near Hilda, in Cypress County, which claimed the life of volunteer firefighter James Hargrave, forced people to evacuate to Medicine Hat as crews worked to protect the hamlet and surrounding farms and homesteads.
Barnes said it's believed as many as four homesteads were destroyed by flames.
"I don't think it's totally out of control anymore. I think they've had some success," said the MLA, who represents Cypress-Medicine Hat.
The fire was brought under control late Wednesday morning and local authorities were co-ordinating the return of evacuees, the province said.
A grassfire that prompted officials in Lethbridge to warn residents of Scenic Heights to be ready to leave on short notice has been put out.
The fire was burning in the coulees on the west of the city.
MD of Willow Creek/Moon River Estates
The wildfire that was threatening the hamlet of Moon River Estates in the MD Willow Creek, just west of Lethbridge, is now under control.
The municipal district enacted a mandatory evacuation for the hamlet on Tuesday night, asking residents to go to the reception centre at the Fort Macleod Community Centre.
Those residents have since been allowed to return home, the province says.
East of Calgary, near the Saskatchewan border, the municipal district of Acadia declared a state of emergency Tuesday evening, telling residents of the hamlet of Acadia Valley to leave immediately "if it is safe to do so."
That evacuation order has now been lifted and residents are permitted to return home. Two homes were reported lost in Acadia Valley, the province said.
Highway 41, south of Acadia Valley, remains closed and a local state of emergency remains in effect.
About 35 kilometres south of Acadia Valley, a fire also threatened the village of Empress at the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. An order to evacuate the area was lifted around 9:30 p.m. MT.
Alberta Agriculture and Forestry deployed 25 wildland firefighters and four helicopters to help local crews fight the fires.
In Saskatchewan, the town of Leader was among the communities being evacuated from the southwestern area of the province due to a fire burning near the provincial border. The town of more than 800 residents declared a local state of emergency.
Evacuations were also ordered in Burstall and Liebenthal, Sask., and in the southern rural municipality of Deerforks.
Motels were jam-packed Tuesday night in the nearby town of Kindersley, as more than 200 people made their way to the town.
Fires were under control near Leader and Burstall and extinguished, in some cases, by Wednesday morning, according to Kindersley's emergency measures director, Bernie Morton.
The weather system responsible for the gusting winds in Alberta and Saskatchewan has crossed into western Manitoba and is expected to spread east through the day.
Wind gusts of 90 km/h are expected throughout most of the province, and Environment Canada issued wind warnings.
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