Fire outbreak in Paintearth Valley underscores vulnerability of residents

A downed powerline and insulator were found on the ground near the starting point of a fire at approximately 3 p.m. in the Paintearth Valley on Thurs. March 18, 2021 according to residents living nearby. ECA Review/Submitted
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A downed powerline and insulator were found on the ground near the starting point of a fire at approximately 3 p.m. in the Paintearth Valley on Thurs. March 18, 2021 according to residents living nearby. ECA Review/Submitted

At approximately 3 p.m. a fire ignited on Thurs. March 18, 2021 in the Paintearth Valley.

It took almost three hours to extinguish the fire by local residents and the Halkirk and Castor volunteer fire departments.

This area was not easy to access as it was just below the crest of the Paintearth Valley which is known for its difficult terrain.

A fire truck got stuck and had to be pulled out by the tractor of a nearby resident.

Fortunately, this was during the day and local residents were around and able to report it almost immediately.

Some snow was still in the trees, there was a private road that provided some access closer to the fire, and the wind was out of the south that directed the fire away from the nearest residence that was half a mile to the south east, fortunate considering most wind conditions are from the northwest.

It could have been devastating for that resident.

Residents have very serious concerns about the cause when they consider that it was a nice day, winds of 10 – 15 km out of the south and no other on the ground evidence apparent to cause the line to go down.  

Recent events in California and the admission of outgoing CEO, Bill Johnson stated that PG & E was responsible for 84 deaths because PG & E chose to put profits ahead of safety as reported by Michael Liedke, AP Business Writer June 16, 2020.

ATCO has reported to the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) stating, “when operations team members arrived on site they found a wooden structure that was partially burned with wires and associated hardware lying on the ground.  There was also a reported grass fire.”

AUC application

AUC is dealing with an application to increase power lines going through the Paintearth and Battle River valleys.

Some of the residents living on what they call “the island” between the Paintearth and Battle River valleys now referred to during the AUC, CETO Proceedings as the Paintearth Valley Preservation Alliance (PVPA) along with the Paintearth Protective Society have already presented their concerns and asked the AUC to deny the CETO application as it is presented, that will increase power lines through the valleys to and from the Tinchebray Substation that was paid for by a third party, which CETO also has requested to be expanded and designated a “hub.”

Reasons for the PVPA request for denial is based on the non-compliance with the County of Paintearth Municipal Development Plan; confirmed ongoing environmental damage on neighbouring private property caused by the Tinchebray Substation; and the lack of assessment of the accessibility to fight a fire if it were to occur.

The county submitted in a letter to AESO and ATCO that they would prefer the “northern-most route proposed which runs within a pre-existing utility corridor along Township Road 400, which is a designated a major arterial road, meaning priority is given to keeping this roadway clear and accessible for all types of traffic.”

In addition, the county also requested the “preference of the northerly routes avoids a visual disturbance to the area.”

ATCO responded by dropping the southern routes, but expansion of the Tinchebray Substation and designating it a “hub” will place the Paintearth Valley in the same position the county had asked them to avoid.

In addition, the County of Paintearth has stated in their letter to Alberta Energy System Operator (AESO) for this proceeding, the county’s concern regarding the “additional transmission infrastructure in the area, using the 2007 Cordel fire along the Battle River valley as an example of how the area is vulnerable to fire both in terms of dry fuel-load in and around the Paintearth Coulee, as well as wind conditions which can exacerbate fires quickly.”

The AUC Hearing for the CETO application is scheduled to begin oral presentations on April 14, 2021 and is estimated to run for about a month.

“We, in the County of Paintearth do not have country music stars like Corb Lund to sing out how wrong this government is when they are forgoing “consultation” with landowners and counties, as is described by AUC JP Mousseau, Executive Director Facilities who said,  “consultation is more than just notification.  You have to go out there, you have to listen, and you have to be willing to work on the project, to get the feedback that gets you there.”

“It is interesting that the expertise of someone who has worked and lived here their entire life seems to be of less value than the experts sitting at their desks in the city,”  stated a resident of the PVPA.

“The county took their support only so far,  even though the residents asked for continued support.

“Other counties within the CETO application which stretches from the Tinchebray substation on the crest of the Paintearth Valley to the Gaetz Substation north of Red Deer have made submissions regarding their concerns but our county has stated “County is comfortable with ATCO’s consultation process and routes selected.  County has no issues or position with the selected routes detailed in Round 3 and 4 project updates” as submitted by ATCO, exhibit 0218, page 16.

“Yet the submissions sent in by the residents of the PVPA to the AUC say otherwise.”

The residents on the land between the Paintearth Valley and the Battle River Valley were reminded due to last week’s fire of their vulnerability due to their location and the infrastructure that they live around when their safety, residences and livelihoods were threatened by the fire.

“It’s not as if the utility is going to go somewhere else?  If the utility is “needed” then it should be up to the county to help guide the utilities to place the infrastructure where public safety of residents and volunteer firefighters has been placed first as well as the requirements to protect the environment so that it is not damaged unnecessarily. (X0631, pg. 6 #17, ATCO’s Expert Golder Report).

“There were and are safer locations within the County of Paintearth”, submitted by PVPA.

A substantial submission has also been made by the Consumers Coalition of Alberta, an interested group of engineers and lawyers, that is providing evidence showing that there is no need for the CETO project as it is proposed at this time and if it were needed that it would be more efficient to locate it closer to the source of the renewable energy that is the southeast area of the province.

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