July 6, 2020

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Cause of fires near rail lines still unknown, deputy chief says following meeting with CN

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Burnt grass by the CN tracks along Wilkes Avenue in Winnipeg.</p>


Burnt grass by the CN tracks along Wilkes Avenue in Winnipeg.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/5/2018 (788 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

At least half of the 14 brush fires the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service has battled since Friday were close to rail lines, but it remains unclear if passing trains were responsible for all of them, a deputy chief says.

On Tuesday, Tom Wallace pointed to Canadian National Railway equipment as the likely cause of a series of fires on Sunday that closely followed a single CN train snaking its way through the city, beginning in St. Boniface, through The Forks and west to south Charleswood.

"I don't have the number off-hand, in terms of how many were in the vicinity of rail lines. We had a number of incidents in the Transcona Bioreserve, and there are rail lines there. Certainly, in the incident on Sunday there appeared to be a pattern of fires that ran in succession that followed a train that had run through the area," the WFPS deputy chief said Wednesday.

"There is no evidence that there were accelerants used, like gasoline or anything like that, but we have to take some of the other possibilities into consideration."

The comments came shortly after a meeting between the WFPS and railway officials to discuss the safety risk stemming from the tinder-dry conditions across the province. Wallace characterized the meeting as "productive" and "reassuring."

On Monday, CN spokeswoman Kate Fenske told the Free Press that CN would pay for damages connected with any incident where it's "proven" one of its trains caused a fire. On Wednesday, however, she stopped short of saying the company will pay for damages if the WFPS determines CN trains were behind some of the recent fires in the city -- including five Sunday.

"We would discuss that on a case-by-case basis," Fenske said.

The string of fires Sunday destroyed a number of Manitoba Hydro poles, burnt some fencing that backs onto a retirement community, and came dangerously close to a golf driving range. Security camera footage, reviewed by the Free Press, appears to show a passing train sparking the fire near the driving range.

A similar scenario was reported Monday in Kannata Valley, Sask., north of Regina, where a grass fire burned three homes to the ground. Area resident Linda Shaeffer said people in the neighbourhood saw sparks coming from the wheel of a train.

RYAN THORPE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Tom Wallace, WFPS deputy chief, speaks to reporters Wednesday, following a meeting with the Canadian National Railway about a recent spate of brush fires in Winnipeg - some of which were sparked near train tracks. In background: Kate Fenske, spokeswoman for CNR.</p>


Tom Wallace, WFPS deputy chief, speaks to reporters Wednesday, following a meeting with the Canadian National Railway about a recent spate of brush fires in Winnipeg - some of which were sparked near train tracks. In background: Kate Fenske, spokeswoman for CNR.

Fenske said as many as 40 CN trains pass through Winnipeg every day, and each train has a two-person team responsible for its safe operation. In any case where an issue was detected, company procedure would call for the train to be stopped so the crew could carry out an inspection.

The CN investigation into Sunday's incident is ongoing, Fenske said.

When asked if CN would consider diverting trains around the city when there's a high risk for brush fires, Fenske said it wouldn't be feasible, before highlighting other precautionary measures the company takes, such as vegetation control and equipment inspections.

"Winnipeg really is a central hub for our networks. We know this is a rail town... We know definitely, right now, that it is a dry time. Our trains are operating 24/7. Our tracks run through the City of Winnipeg. If there is any concern we would take measures. But I don't think there's really any way for us to go around, as we have to serve customers and get our customers the goods they're ordering," Fenske said.

On Wednesday, Wallace reiterated the message he's been repeating all week: under current conditions, all open-air fires are dangerous and irresponsible.

Wallace has been filling in for WFPS Chief John Lane, who is currently in Texas to attend a conference. The two have been in contact by phone and email all week, Wallace said.

The deputy chief said the service is sending firefighters door to door in high-risk areas to work with homeowners to remove fire hazards from their property. An open-air fire ban remains in effect in Winnipeg.

Firefighters have responded to 55 brush fires in Winnipeg this year. The WFPS responded to 85 in all of 2017.

When asked just how bad, and high risk, the situation in Winnipeg is in terms of fires, Wallace, who has 20 years of experience in the department, said: "It's the worst year I've seen, period."

-- with files from The Canadian Press


Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

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