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Ranchers blame exploding shell for grass fire that killed 160 head of cattle

Jackie Irwin, Postmedia Network

Some of the 160 head of cattle killed at a community ranch in Bindloss, Alta., when a grass fire swept through the area Monday night. (SUPPLIED PHOTO)

Some of the 160 head of cattle killed at a community ranch in Bindloss, Alta., when a grass fire swept through the area Monday night. (SUPPLIED PHOTO)

BINDLOSS, Alta. — When the residents of Bindloss wake up in the morning, they often don’t take in the rising sun.

Instead they turn their attention to the south, towards The Block — other Albertans know it as Canadian Forces Base Suffield — to see if there’s smoke.

“We live on pins and needles every time we see smoke,” said Jenner fire Chief Jeff Lewandoski.

Their fears turned into reality late Monday when fire scorched ranchers' land near the base, leading to the loss of property, the death of 160 cattle and a mass evacuation.

"Things have got to change. Somebody is going to die," said Bindloss Mayor Daryl Swenson at a community meeting Thursday, held in response to the blaze, attended by residents and local politicians.

The community called CFB Suffield a regular source of fire and area residents said they are fed up with the situation.

“I want to get the military to be responsible for their actions," said Swenson.

The military said Wednesday it is investigating whether soldiers in training, who disposed of an unexploded artillery shell by blowing it up, sparked the grass fire.

Maj. Hugh Atwell, acting commander of the base, said a fire crew was there as a precaution, but the explosion and gusty winds caused flames to spread quickly in the dry grass.

Atwell said it is not clear if the explosion caused the fire outside the base.

“At this time I cannot conclusively say that that fire was the result of the fire that started on base,” Atwell said Wednesday.

But locals bitterly dispute the military's version of events.

“I was first on scene,” said Buffalo fire Chief Pat Kukura.

He said he watched the fire come closer and closer from the base perimeter, but his crews are not allowed to enter the area.

Laurel Schlaht said it will take years for the farm she owns with her husband to recover from Monday's blaze.

“We lost six quarter-acres of winter fields,” she said. “It will take a minimum of three to five years to restore the grasslands. This is the backbone to our operations.”

For some who live in the evacuated area, concerns were not just for the here and now but for future generations.

Laurie Campbell questioned whether her children would want to take over the family farm if they had to constantly live in fear of losing their livelihood.

“I had to wake up my kids at midnight and go through the house to decide what to bring,” Campbell recalled.

She said while her nine-year-old was busy searching for a favourite toy, her five-year-old was worried if their dad would make it out of the fire alive.

“We’re scared,” said Campbell. “Imagine how our children feel.”

Jack Stelter said the issue of fires coming from the base is a problem they’ve been battling for years.

“They tell us they want to be our friends and our neighbours.”

“They’re not really good friends … and they’re bad neighbours,” Stelter said.

Ivan Schlaht, who lost the most cattle in the fire, said while he didn’t take any photos of the animals, others did for insurance purposes.

“It’s the goriest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said of walking the fields where his animals died.

“I don’t wish that on anyone.”

— With files from The Canadian Press

jirwin@postmedia.com