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This article was published 19/7/2018 (683 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A fire chief unavailable and out of town, his department scrambling and stretched thin, a railway with an alleged pattern of denying responsibility and a city on fire.
That’s the picture painted by internal Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service documents and emails obtained by the Free Press through freedom of information requests into the spate of brush fires that plagued the city in the spring.
Earlier this week, after repeated media inquiries, the Canadian National Railway said it had finally closed its investigation into a string of fires along its track in Winnipeg on Sunday, May 6.
That day, five fires broke out in the immediate aftermath of a single CN train snaking its way from St. Boniface, down through The Forks and out through south Charleswood, threatening businesses and homes, and burning trees, fencing, building materials and Manitoba Hydro poles in the process.
CN spokeswoman Kate Fenske said "after a thorough investigation" they found no evidence their "rail operations or equipment" sparked the fires — despite video footage, numerous eyewitness accounts and fire department reports that suggest otherwise.
The company’s finding comes more than two months after WFPS acting Deputy Chief Tom Wallace — then filling in for Chief John Lane who was attending a conference in Texas — pointed to CN as the likely culprit.
It appears CN’s finding won’t come as a surprise to Lane who, in an email to Wallace at the time, hinted the rail giant would likely find itself not at fault.
"I have been warned that CN has a pattern in other provinces of denying responsibility," Lane wrote.
“I have been warned that CN has a pattern in other provinces of denying responsibility." –Chief John Lane, in an email
CN is currently the subject of three lawsuits in Manitoba — including one from the provincial government seeking $3.8 million in damages — all connected to brush fires in which the company has denied responsibility.
The City of Winnipeg declined a request from the Free Press to interview Lane. And after providing a short written statement, CN declined further comment for this story and would not agree to an interview.
When told CN’s investigation found no evidence its operations were at fault, Kari Olson, who works at RJ Millwork Co. Ltd. — one of the businesses affected by the fires along Wilkes Avenue – was shocked.
"Really? What else would it have been?" Olson said, incredulous.
"That’s kind of shocking they would actually say it wasn’t them. I’m kind of at a loss for words that they would do that, because, really, what else was it? We all knew right away.
"I guess they don’t want it to be their fault, because then how much in damages would they have to pay?"
The situation in early May, when dry, tinder-like conditions were blanketing much of the province, was unprecedented for brush fires in Winnipeg, with the city providing a running tally of new fires each day.
At the time, speaking to the Free Press, Wallace said he hadn’t seen anything like it during his 20 years of experience in the department.
An internal fire department memo makes clear the severity of the situation, characterizing the type of fires then igniting all over the city as "extremely dangerous and unpredictable."
Internal documents also show that United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg President Alex Forrest was raising concerns that the department was so busy firefighters weren’t getting their mandated rest between calls.
Things were so dire that Lane — then in San Antonio, Texas — lamented, "I regret that I really can’t do much from here." He later offered to cut his trip short and fly back to Winnipeg.
Documents show the city began receiving reports of fires along CN track in St. Boniface on May 6. In an email to area’s councillor Matt Allard, a resident wrote, "We are lucky this happened on a Sunday when folks were outside in their back yards and noticed the smoke."
As the train continued on its way through the city, fires continued to break out along its route.
"It is important to note that yesterday the fires at Gabrielle Roy Place, Forks Market, Kenaston, Shaftesbury and Wilkes are likely all related and associated with rail activity," Wallace wrote the following day in an email to the city’s communications department.
In the areas of Shaftesbury Boulevard and Wilkes Avenue, the fires began growing out of control. The flames threatened a golf driving range in the area (which has security footage of the fire starting as the train passes), and burned down the back fencing at a nearby retirement complex.
"A train is currently moving through this area impeding crews' access to the fire... There are reports the nearby retirement facility on Shaftesbury has begun evacuating residents," Wallace wrote.
After initially pointing towards CN as the likely cause of the fires, Wallace backed off later that week following a meeting with CN. After the meeting, Wallace told reporters the cause of the fires remained "unknown."
An internal City of Winnipeg email thread obtained by the Free Press holds a clue that could help explain the backpedalling.
During a discussion of the upcoming meeting with CN, Felicia Wiltshire, the city’s director of customer service and communications, suggested the communications department help the WFPS develop "joint messaging" with CN on the matter.
It remains unclear why the city felt the need for joint messaging with CN.
While the city initially refused to say whether it would seek reimbursement from CN for the cost of extinguishing the fires, on Wednesday a spokeswoman said there were plans to pursue cost recovery after all, although she was unable to provide a dollar figure.
Meanwhile, CN spokeswoman Kate Fenske said the company would be in contact with the city to discuss "the appropriate compensation for their efforts."
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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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