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Firefighters keeping busy in 2021

Chiefs urge residents to be fire smart, as winter provides for more challenges

ATHABASCA — A number of recent fires in the Athabasca region have kept firefighters on their toes. 

The most recent being Feb. 7 at a rural property east of Athabasca near Jackfish Lake. Two houses were reduced to rubble — one about 20 years old, and the other, a new build that was nearly ready to move into. (See page 12.) 

“We don't exactly know how it started,” said Athabasca County Fire Services regional chief Sheldon Schoepp last week. “There were two homes sort of in the same vicinity. That was a four-alarm call-out.” 

Athabasca, Boyle, Grassland and Colinton fire departments all responded to the scene. 

"It was fully involved when we got there, and it was a defensive fight from the get-go,” said Schoepp, adding there were also three large propane tanks and solar panels that were an additional cause for concern.  

The previous evening, Feb. 6, the Wandering River Fire Department, along with the Highway 63 Rescue crew, responded to a vehicle on fire at the Husky station. Luckily, a quick response resulted in damage only to the gas pump itself and the awning, said Schoepp. A nearby hotel was evacuated, but firefighters prevailed. 

“If it would have escalated, it would have probably been on some bigger news channels,” he added. 

Athabasca fire chief Travis Shalapay noted it has been an unusual year so far, but there is no noticeable trend. 

On Feb. 4, the Athabasca Fire Department was called to a house fire within town limits, with backup from the Colinton Fire Department.  

“It started in the basement and by the time it was observed, smoke was coming from the first-floor windows. Unfortunately, firefighters had to exit the building … and they were able to fight it from the outside,” Shalapay said.   

Going back to January, Shalapay said the department also dealt with a kitchen fire in town and then two separate structure fires south of Athabasca near Aspen Ridge Road.  

“Again both — not to sound like a broken record — both are still under investigation, but nothing is suspicious about those two fires,” he said. “I will be brutally honest that there’s nothing suspicious about them.”  

One fire was in a detached garage that was noticed by a passing Athabasca RCMP member who alerted the owners.  

“They were inside watching hockey and the garage was on fire so, unfortunately by the time it was reported it was fully engulfed and it was a it was a total loss,” he said.  

The next fire, in a nearby subdivision, started in the attic. 

“So, it came in as an attic fire; the fire started up in the attic and again still under investigation but it's potentially a chimney fire,” said Shalapay.  

He noted that people need to have their chimneys cleaned regularly and inspect them after a high wind.  

“The high winds we had — the Alberta snow squall, which I've never seen before —chimneys can buckle and things can happen,” he said. “Unfortunately, with wood burning appliances there is a risk there.” 

The previous files will be closed soon enough, but the fire that burned Obadiah Place on Amber Valley Road just before the new year, will be kept open long-term as it is difficult to determine the cause with nothing left of the structure. 

“Unfortunately, the fire went some period of time prior to being reported. So, realistically there was very little left to investigate. The building materials were all original, they were being restored back to original state so we had cedar siding and cedar shake shingles, pine for floors, everything in the house was wood.”  

With only ash and mortar left it comes down to witnesses and he is hoping someone will come forward with information. It has been determined nearby burning brush piles did not cause the fire. 

Both chiefs remind all residents to be very aware of the potential for fires every month of the year, but winter especially can provide some extra precautions to be aware of. 

“Home fire safety is very important. Closing bedroom doors and things like that really, really help,” said Shalapay. “I can't say which fire we attended but a closed bedroom door actually let us save the bedroom and all the contents within the bedroom because it wasn't able to spread. Whether it be wood burning stoves or (cleaning) dryer vents or making sure that you turn off portable heaters when you’re stepping out; there's so many little things you can do to be fire smart.”