A series of weekend brush fires in Winnipeg appear to have been sparked by a single Canadian National Railway train snaking its way from St. Boniface, down through the city's heart at The Forks, and out through south Charleswood.
The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service said Tuesday even though its investigation remains ongoing, early signs point to a single train as the likely culprit. In total, fire crews battled at least five blazes.
"Those calls came in shortly after the train passed through. You can chart the route from the first incident in St. Boniface, then follow it along through the fire at The Forks, then the Kenaston (Boulevard) overpass, then Shaftesbury, Elmhurst," said deputy chief Tom Wallace.
"Our investigators haven’t determined an absolute cause, but those incidents came in succession following the train that came through. I’ve never seen a single incident like that one on Sunday. But when we plot our grassfires over the years, there is a pattern of seeing grass fires along rail lines."
The WFPS has scheduled a meeting with the rail company later this week. Wallace spoke to the Free Press as a stand-in for WFPS Chief John Lane, who is away from Winnipeg attending a week-long conference in Texas.
Sunday's incident isn’t the first time fingers have been pointed at CNR following a blaze. Court documents obtained by the Free Press show the rail company is currently the subject of a number of lawsuits in Manitoba.
The government of Manitoba is suing CNR for $3.8 million in expenses, after the province put out a fire May 5, 2016, near the Ontario border. In addition, a property owner and a tree-care company have filed separate suits against CNR, alleging the company's equipment started an April 30, 2016, fire in Headingley. Both parties are seeking up to $100,000 in damages.
The allegations have not been proven in court.
On Monday, a CNR spokeswoman said the company covers damages for any "legitimate" claim — when it’s proven one of its trains caused a fire.
The CNR spokeswoman declined an interview request Tuesday. However, she provided a written statement, saying the company, "takes this seriously and (we) remain focused on minimizing the risk of brush fires along the railway."
The spokeswoman also wrote no mechanical issues have been identified that would have caused Sunday’s brush fires in Winnipeg.
Sel Burrows, a Point Douglas community activist and co-chairman of the Rail Yard Relocation Project, which calls for the Canadian Pacific Railway lot to be moved outside city limits, said if it's proven the train caused the fires, it's another argument for why — eventually — all rail lines be relocated.
"We have safety concerns about having the rail lines coming through our community. It used to mostly be grain cars, but now two-thirds seem to be tankers filled with bitumen from the oilsands in Alberta. People are rightly concerned. That was the same sort of stuff in the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster. Now, you add the fear of fires starting," Burrows said.
(An unattended freight train carrying crude oil derailed in the small Quebec town on July 6, 2013. The resulting explosion killed 47 people and destroyed the community's downtown.)
"The concern, not just for our community, but for all sorts of communities that have rail lines coming through them, is that there's often patches of old, dried weeds by the tracks. If something malfunctions on the train and it sparks, it wouldn't take long for (a fire) to be at the houses near the rail line in no time."
Ken Giersch, a senior fire investigator with EFI Global, an independent fire investigations company, and who worked for the Manitoba Office of the Fire Commissioner for more than a decade, said it's not common — but not unheard of — for trains to spark fires while passing by.
"I've investigated a couple of cases like that. One way it could happen is if the train was ejecting slag through its exhaust. The other likely way for that to happen would be if there was a mechanical failure with bearings or brakes. I think that's more likely. If those fail, the car would be sparking all the way, as it's being dragged along," Giersch said.
This shows the nine fire locations in the city between May 4 and May 8, according to the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service, many of which were along the rail lines.
1: Roblin Boulevard and Perimeter Highway
May 7, 5:19 p.m., wildland fire, no injuries reported, no damage to structures, cause is under investigation
2: Victoria Row
May 7, 6:44 p.m., grass fire, no injuries, a detached garage and belongings were damaged, cause under investigation
3: Day Street
May 7, 8:04 p.m., grass fire, no structural damage but some area businesses were evacuated as a precaution, no injuries reported, cause under investigation
4: Whiteshell Avenue
May 8, 12:49 a.m., wildland fire, no structural damage, one firefighter sustained minor injuries, cause under investigation
5: Charleswood Road
May 4, 8:07 p.m., fire in farmer’s field, no damage to structures, no injuries, cause under investigation
6: 1500 block of Regent Avenue West
May 4, 11:15 p.m., brush fire behind business, two men died, Winnipeg police investigating
7: 70 Block of Promenade Des Intrepides
May 6, 2:59 p.m., grass fire, no damage to structures, no injuries, cause under investigation
8: Wilkes Avenue
May 6, 3:09 p.m., grass fire along rail line from Kenaston Boulevard to the Perimeter Highway, no injuries, hydro poles and fencing damaged, cause under investigation
9: 2000 Block Hoka Street
May 6, 10:45 p.m., wildland fire, no injuries, no damage to structures, cause under investigation
An open-air fire ban remains in effect in Winnipeg, as tinder-like conditions persist. In addition to the five fires over the weekend, four more were reported between Monday evening and Tuesday morning — one (which does not appear connected to a rail line) turned tragic.
Around 11:15 p.m. Friday, fire crews responded to the 1500 block of Regent Avenue West, where they found two men badly burned. They were transported to hospital and later pronounced dead.
On Monday, the two men were identified as Randy and Wendell Robinson, brothers from Bunibonibee Cree Nation. On Tuesday, their bodies were released to family and taken back to their home community 575 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, Bunibonibee Chief Tim Muskego said.
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Winnipeg Police Service's major crimes unit is investigating the deaths.
Wallace said the recent spate of fires has been "unprecedented" compared to what he’s seen during 20 years of service in the city.
"Typically, these wildland fires are low-frequency, low-risk events. They tend to be small in size and don’t happen very often. They’re easily managed. But with these conditions, they’ve transferred over into high-risk, high-frequency events," the deputy chief said.
"The position of the department right now is any outdoor burning is irresponsible and risky. We’re asking for the public’s co-operation... The last thing we need right now is someone driving along Wilkes (Avenue) and throwing a cigarette butt out the window."
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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.
At least 15 man-made wildfires broke out Tuesday in Manitoba, one day after 10 homes and buildings in the Interlake region burned to the ground, as dry conditions continue to plague the province.
In total, Manitoba has experienced 60 wildfires thus far in 2018. While the causes of those fires remain under investigation, 15 of them show signs of being man-made, according to the province.
“What makes this abnormal is that (these fires are) generally all in one area and they’re all human-caused, which could mean anything from an accidental fire, to burns getting out of hand and spreading, to arson,” said Gary Friesen, the province’s wildfire program manager.
RCMP, alongside Manitoba Sustainable Development, continue to investigate.
On Monday, five homes were engulfed in flames by two fires on Little Saskatchewan First Nations, which is located 250 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Five other buildings went down in the surrounding area, including the communities of Lake St. Martin and Fairford.
A spokeswoman for Little Saskatchewan confirmed the homes had been destroyed, but declined to provide further details.
“There have been 10 structures burnt, in terms of houses -- some of which were occupied, some of which weren’t. There’s also been a number of out buildings burnt in that area,” Friesen said.
At least 35 extra firefighters, 10 helicopters and five water bombers were deployed Tuesday to battle the blazes blanketing rural Manitoba.
“It’s so dry out there (the fires) cause a lot of damage. Again, there was no rainfall. There’s very, very low relative humidity, which is taking the moisture out of everything. That, combined with the wind, makes every fire very quick to spread,” Friesen said.
On Monday, Dave Phillips, Environment Canada’s senior climatologist, told the Free Press the situation in Manitoba is likely to get worse before it gets better.
Phillips said the dryness is bordering on a drought, reaching unprecedented levels that haven’t been seen in decades. He added the situation is “bleak” and “serious,” with no salvation on the horizon in the form of forecasted rain.
Burning permits have been cancelled for the eastern, western and central regions of the province. Travel restrictions have been imposed for much of southeastern, central and western Manitoba.
“We want people to be careful during an activity in the outdoors. People need to be careful because it’s so dry. And if you do encounter any fires, call 911 or our wildfire tip line,” Friesen said.