Exhausted firefighters battle blaze and heat wave

Transcontinental Staff
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UNIONVALE — Firefighters abandoned their turn-out coats to battle a stubborn fire in a barnyard filled with straw bales this afternoon in Unionvale.

“I realize it’s not proper procedure, but we’d kill them in this heat with (the coats) on,” said O’Leary fire chief Ron Phillips

The thermometer was wavering between 32 and 33 degrees Celsius — away from the fire —  when volunteers from the O’Leary, West Point, Alberton and Tignish fire departments rolled onto the scene.

The fire started around 11:45 a.m. when some loose straw fell onto the motor of a bale wrapper and ignited.

Owner Ewen Stetson estimated he had close to 300 bales of straw wrapped in rows behind his barn along the O’Leary Road. Dozens of them caught fire.

White steam and smoke filled the humid air. One firefighter, suspected to be suffering from smoke inhalation, was taken by ambulance to Western Hospital. Other firefighters appeared exhausted as they broke away from the fire scene, spared off by fellow volunteers. Some doused their heads in a drop tank to cool off.

“You have to take breaks often or you’re toast for the rest of the day,” explained O’Leary fire fighter Norman Woodside. 

Woodside had been plunging the bale spear of one of Stetson’s tractors into the row to remove burning bales, all the while depending on the wall of water being thrown up by firefighters crouching at the end of hose lines. During changes in the wind direction smoke and steam sometimes obscured the firefighters from view.

“As fires go, you couldn’t get much worse,” Phillips said, noting the scorching heat and a breeze that was driving the smoke and the fire towards Stetson’s dairy barn.

Although it was clear by 1:30 p.m. that firefighters were bringing the fire under control, Phillips acknowledged there were still hours of work to do.

“Probably into the evening, (but) we’re a lot ahead of what could have been happening,” he said, pointing to the initial risk of the fire catching into nearby buildings.

The location of the bale-wrapping operation, in a field of green grass, helped keep the fire from spreading, Phillips acknowledged.

West Point fire chief Harvey Stewart was one of the first firefighters on the scene. He said one of their first tasks was to extinguish sparks landing in a manure pile near the barn. Manure piles, if they catch on fire, he noted, can be difficult to extinguish. 

Stetson estimated he might be able to save 100 of his bales. The bale-wrapper was destroyed.

Organizations: Western Hospital

Geographic location: UNIONVALE, West Point, Tignish O’Leary Road

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