Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Grass fire stretches crews to limit

Platoon chief mulled calling in off-duty staff

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Faced with a stubborn grass fire threatening homes in Charleswood and a shrinking number of available firefighters to battle it, Winnipeg fire platoon chief Albert Sigfusson admits he thought about calling in off-duty firefighters.

"The thought was there," Sigfusson said on Tuesday as fire crews and pumpers kept shuttling in and out of driveways on Loudoun Road or into the adjacent forest.

Sigfusson said he knew so many crews had been fighting the blaze that firefighter capacity across the city was down to about 32 per cent.

"We have fire halls without adequate staff," he said.

"I had the phone in my hand. But I thought in two hours our next shift would be here and we would be back up to 100 per cent. So I didn't."

Sigfusson even considered calling in one of the province's water bombers, but the nearest plane was busy battling forest fires near Flin Flon and the wind was so strong it would have made it too dangerous and too inaccurate to consider using.

But Sigfusson said the next best method to fight the fire was by hand.

"A firefighter can carry in a backpack with a couple of gallons of water," he said.

"It's almost the most effective way to fight a forest fire because we can walk into where a truck can't go and pour water on it."

Throughout the day, about 18 pieces of equipment were in and around the fire burning south of Wilkes Boulevard and between Loudoun and McCreary roads.

Because there are no fire hydrants in the area, Sigfusson said, crews had to keep driving about two kilometres away to fill the pumper trucks with water.

As well, other equipment such as Bobcats and front-end loaders were commandeered from private businesses to hastily create access to the forest for firefighting equipment.

Crew members from St. James Tree Service helped out by spraying water on a large house and the forest around it on the east side of Loudoun Road, just south of Howe Avenue.

Firefighters were also seen transporting firefighting equipment -- including a couple of brooms -- into the bush on an ATV.

Sigfusson said the grass fire actually started on the weekend and fire crews believed they had put it out.

But Sigfusson said because of the continued dry conditions, the department stationed a pumper on Loudoun Road and its crew saw a hay bale suddenly catch fire on Tuesday about 8 a.m.

They tried to put it out, but the high winds spread the flames to the forest.

Sigfusson said some residents had been evacuated or left the area on their own, but he didn't know how many.

The staff of Cambridge Meadow Farms, at 2790 Wilkes Ave., led horses to safety over the noon hour.

Farther down Loudoun, personnel at Meadow Green Stables said they had their horses in a paddock by the road with a long horse trailer ready out front. Firefighters could be seen behind the stables pouring water onto a burning field.

Students at Canadian Mennonite University, near the intersection of Grant Avenue and Shaftesbury Boulevard, reported there was smoke blowing in through windows.

The firefighting effort had been made particularly difficult by the strong winds for part of the day, which gusted up to 70 km/h from the south and west, and blew smoke over the southwestern part of the city.


-- with files from Jason Bell

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 3, 2012 A5

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