BARRHEAD- County of Barrhead councillors gave a resident a break on paying for firefighting services rendered due to extenuating circumstances.
That is the decision councillors came to during their Sept. 7 meeting when they decided to reduce their firefighting bill to $3,000, cancelling two previous invoices totalling more than $12,500.
County manager Debbie Oyarzun said they received a request from a landowner to forgive the two bills, one for $1,350 and another for $9,852.81, for an April 17 wildfire on their property near Township Road 582 and Highway 33.
Under the county's Policy 23.02 (Fire Protection Service Charges), the municipality can charge residents up to $3,000 of the cost of a Barrhead Regional Fire Services (BRFS) response.
The fire department responded to the fire due to a 911 report.
The county decided on the cap because councillors, at the time, believed that most insurance policies would cover $3,000.
The policy states that a landowner or occupant is responsible for the entire cost of firefighting if they are in contravention of any provincial law, bylaw or fire control order.
She added that the original incident report by BRFS chief Gary Hove noted that the landowner had set two fires on the property when a fire control order was in effect.
On April 16, the BRFS issued a ban/restriction order. The order prohibited all campfires and other open fires or charcoal briquettes in the backcountry or random camping areas. It also suspended all new fire permits issued for large burning, brush piles and windrows.
However, upon investigation, Oyarzun said the landowner did have a fire permit.
"The fire chief has indicated it is normal practice to allow farmers to burn to prepare their fields for agriculture even during a restriction," she said. "Although there was stubble, the fields were cultivated and in conversations with the landowner, as well as other people on the scene, we found out that he had called the fire hall and left a message indicating he was going to proceed with the burn."
She noted that the landowner did take precautions by having equipment available. He also said that the forecast had predicted rain later in the day.
Oyarzun added that the landowner stated that when he started the burn, the wind was under 15 kilometres an hour, the maximum allowed under the permit, but they increased during the burn.
"The landowner said he attempted to 'burn the fire hot and fast' because of the proximity to Highway 33, to minimize the visibility hazard of the smoke," she said. "Unfortunately, the fire spread to the fence line and a small grove of trees which is why the fire response was required."
Due to these circumstances, Oyarzun recommended reducing the amount to the $3,000 standard under their policy, noting the landowner did have insurance.
Coun. Darrell Troock, who attended the meeting via Zoom, said he was reluctant to reduce the invoice.
"I am tired of paying the bills of people who don't know how to fight fires," he said. "Why do we even have a fire restriction? Everyone else was scared to start their car because of fears of lighting the place on fire ... yet we are giving out permits."
Troock added that at one time, council issued the fire control orders, suggesting it might be time they go back to the practice.
He noted that there is a great variation in the weather patterns in the county and councillors are in a good position to know what is going on.
"The grass might be dry and brown as can be in [Coun. Dennis Nanninga's division] and be as green as can be in mine," Troock said.
"The science behind it, the weather data that's used, the coordination with the Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. The grass might be green, but there still can be a lot of fuel in the area and by council making that decision you are opening yourselves to risk and liability," she said.
Oyarzun added the better question is whether the municipality should issue fire permits at all when a fire restriction order is in place, suggesting that is something they consider the next time they review Bylaw 8-2013 (Extinguishing Fires and Cost) or Policy 23.02.