Investigators find County of Wetaskiwin property owner responsible for fire

County council hears report that $20k bill should go to property owner

A County of Wetaskiwin landowner is responsible for over $20,000 in firefighting costs after a report from senior members of the Wetaskiwin Fire Department Dec. 10 at the general meeting of council.

Wetaskiwin Fire Chief Jamie Wilkinson and Deputy Chief Alex Plant both appeared to speak before county council in regards to a large barn fire which the department fought on the property of Carl Gravesen in April, 2019.

Gravesen, who was in attendance at the council meeting, had previously received a letter from the county stating he was responsible for the fire and owed $20,349 in firefighting costs related to the blaze.

“On April 28, 2019 the services of the Wetaskiwin Rural Fire Department and County of Wetaskiwin equipment were required at a structure fire at 455033A RR 235; legally described as SW 32-45-23-W5M,” stated the council agenda memo.

Wilkinson and Plant presented their findings to council, that the barn was destroyed by a fire which came from a nearby “burn pit,” a term used by the investigators during their presentation to council. They also presented a number of photos of the site in question after the fire, along with video shot from a drone.

“The fire investigation determined that a hold over fire from a burn pit to the south of the barn had a re-ignition due to the contents of debris being burned,” stated the council agenda memo.

“The burn pit had old discarded shingles and other prohibited debris that upon re-ignition started a grass fire that followed the contour of the area driven by wind that eventually impinged on the hog barn. Fire Services Bylaw 2019/10: Section 10 (10.2) No person shall burn or cause to be burned any Prohibited Debris within the boundaries of the County Section 10 (10.9) All fires are the responsibility of the landowner(s), including reignitions. Section 14 (14.5) A landowner within the County’s boundaries to which Fire Protection is provided is not liable for Fire Protection Charges incurred unless negligence or any contravention of this Bylaw occurred and the County may add to the tax roll of the parcel of land all unpaid Fire Protection Charges (after thirty (30) days), which forms a special lien against the parcel of land in favor of the County from the date the amount was added to the tax roll, in accordance with Section 553 of the Municipal Government Act.”

Plant said that the only source of fire the department could find was the nearby burn pit. As well, he stated winds that day were swirling and changed directions.

Plant said a nearby burn barrel was investigated and played no role in the fire. As well, weather information was researched and there were no lighting strikes that day in that area. Also, no evidence was found that power poles were involved in the fire and no evidence was found that the fire was electrical in nature.

County Director of Emergency Services Mike Zajac said that the nearby burn pit had asphalt shingles in it. Both Plant and Wilkinson said certain fires are known to burn underground for weeks or months and then flare up.

Zajac said the county did not have a record of a permit for the fire pit in question in 2018 or 2019.

Gravesen was given a chance to speak to council. “We know we didn’t start the fire,” he said, adding that the shingles in the pit were never lit on fire and also confirming to council that the destroyed barn was not insured.

As investigation by the fire department found the Gravesens responsible for the fire which destroyed the barn, staff recommended the bill for $20,349 be given to the landowner. Councilors approved the recommendation by a 5 to 2 vote.

Previous meeting

At the Dec. 5 general council meeting, Gravesen had a letter presented that stated the cause of the fire should be considered accidental or unknown.

“Six months after the fire we received a bill for fire protection charges, together with a letter stating that we were responsible for the fire,” stated the letter signed by Carl and Anni Gravesen and dated Nov. 15.

“We have a burial pit for material that the county doesn’t accept at the transfer station, such as animal bones, unrolled barbed wire, asphalt shingles etc. We did not start a fire in that pit in April, 2019 and there had not been a fire there for more than 18 months. However, considering the situation with theft and vandalism in the area, we do not know if a trespasser could have dropped a cigarette or otherwise started a fire.”

At the Dec. 5 meeting councilors agreed to hear the official report from the Wetaskiwin Fire Department before making a decision on the Gravesen’s fire bill.

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