I won’t forget my 2017 birthday. I woke up to a cool house Oct. 18, but that was nothing compared to people who no longer had a home or viable agricultural operation when the sun rose that morning. Below is an abbreviated version of events from various media and it is most certainly not complete.
After a beautiful morning on Oct. 17, the wind began to blow a little. I actually thought weather forecasters had made an error because the strong winds they predicted had not occurred. However, conditions began to change and by 10 a.m. I definitely knew I was the one who was wrong. The wind speed continued to increase until it buffeted pedestrians around and made them appear intoxicated. While it looked funny, it was definitely not a laughing matter, especially when a prairie fire erupted in Alberta shortly after noon. The flames quickly consumed anything in their path causing officials to issue evacuation notices for Hilda, Schuler and Empress. Some school buses did not go out, so parents had to find alternate methods of picking up their children. The blowing dust and thick smoke greatly reduced visibility and made driving in the vicinity of the fire extremely dangerous.
Firefighters from nearby municipalities in Alberta and Saskatchewan who responded faced choking smoke and winds that moved the fire at highway speed. When it was clear the fire could not be stopped, evacuation orders were issued for the towns of Burstall, Leader, Richmound, Eatonia (I believe) and the RM of Deer Forks. Wildfires also erupted near Consul and Tompkins.
As for Maple Creek, tree branches that did not snap in the massive snowfall of Oct. 2 were given a second torture test and many did not fare well. A trampoline belonging to our neighbours to the south become airborne and sailed over their six-foot fence. It caught another neighbour’s telephone line and made a perfect landing which prevented it from crashing into a nearby vehicle.
As updates on the fire and evacuations were being received, a power line came down on a truck belonging to our neighbours to the north. That was about 7:30 p.m. and it was the same time our lights and electrical service failed. We waited in the dark for the electricity to return, but power was not restored until 6 p.m. the next day.
Later we learned SaskPower had cut power to Maple Creek and Cypress Hills Park in order to avoid more fires erupting when trees fell on transmission lines or power poles snapped. The widespread windstorm was made more unique because it impacted about half of SaskPower’s grid. The wind broke a record at Moose Jaw when it topped out at 134 kph and smashed the previous record of 119 kph set in 1991. In Alberta, the highest gust of 141 kph was recorded at Waterton Dam.
Environment Canada climatologist David Phillips said he was shocked at how fast the storm moved. “It just shocked our forecasters that it went from Alberta right through to Manitoba in five hours,” he said. “I mean we talk about a clipper – this was like a rocket.”
Sustained winds of 119-153 kph are classed as Category 1 hurricane. Thankfully, it was only the gusts of the windstorm that reached that speed or the damage would have been much greater.
Nevertheless, at least 14 homes were lost to fire and 750 cattle destroyed. Grain bins were rolled across fields like toy balls, fences flattened by the wind or falling trees, signs and windows smashed, eavestroughing and shingles ripped from homes. The SaskTel building located in the Hatton Hills had its roof blown off and insulation was strewn down the TransCanada Highway and neighbouring fields for half a kilometer. At Regina, two town houses that were under construction were flattened. In Alberta, two freight trains were derailed in the high winds: one at Trochu and the other at Wainwright.
However, the fire of Oct. 17-18 will stand out in people’s minds for the toll it took on life. Not only were animals killed by the unforgiving smoke and heat, but James Hargrave died after the water tanker he was driving entered a ditch and rolled. The 34-year-old volunteer firefighter from Walsh, Alta. has a wife and four children.
Edward Riehl, 74, was talking to Hargrave 10 km south of Burstall when the wind changed direction and began overtaking them. Following Hargrave, Riehl also drove into the ditch, but was able to escape on foot. He suffered extensive burns on his hands and knees and is recovering in Calgary.
Ron Wedrick, 43, and his 25-year-old son Evan were also severely burned fighting a fire near Tompkins. Like Hargrave and Riehl, they also could not see due to dense smoke and blowing dirt and drove into a ditch. The wind changed and their truck was engulfed in flames. They tried to run, but hit a buffalo fence. The men were located thanks to an app on Ron’s phone that provided rescuers with their location. They were airlifted to Calgary and the last I heard Ron was stable and Evan was in critical condition with third-degree burns.
A GoFundMe page has been set up for Wedricks and the Hargrave family. They certainly could use our prayers and assistance.