‘The danger, the loss’: Alberta couple believes CN Rail is responsible for devastating grass fire

CALGARY – It looks like a set for an apocalyptic movie. The property is filled with burnt-out cars, melted plastic and equipment scorched beyond recognition. All of it was once Jim Roberts’ livelihood.

“I’m not even entirely sure what all the losses are and most of the stuff was totally irreplaceable,” he said.

Jim and Laurel Roberts have lived on the property for more than 30 years. Jim is a mechanic and collector and sold vehicle parts, but that all came to a crashing halt last month.

On March 29, a grass fire started near the Roberts’ property. Strong winds and tinder dry conditions hindered firefighters’ efforts. Amazingly, two of the Roberts’ homes were saved, but the rest of their property–including Jim’s workshop–was destroyed.

“I walk around the house now and I go, ‘wow, I didn’t lose that. Wow, I didn’t lose that.’ I feel like I’ve been given back my life, but Jim hasn’t,” said Laurel, holding back tears.

One of dozens of burnt-out cars on the Roberts’ property east of Calgary, April 12, 2016.

Tracy Nagai / Global News

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    Shockingly, it was the third fire near the property in as many days. The first happened on Sunday evening. Jim said he saw a CN Rail train switching tracks and then a fire started off an old engine. Jim said he and his son grabbed shovels and helped the train operator to put the fire out.

    “It was a very old engine and when we talked to the train man who had stopped and was attempting to put the fire out, he said, ‘oh yeah, there were no spark arrestors on that engine,’” Jim said. Spark arrestors are tools used to prevent flames from spreading.

    The second fire happened during the early morning hours of March 29, the day the Roberts’ property was burned to the ground.

    “I looked out the window and saw some flashing red lights that were not supposed to be there,” Jim said. “It turned out the fire department had been called for that. It was a fire, again, close to the tracks, a little east of the buildings here.”

    Less than 12 hours later, Jim received an alarming call while he was in town. It was a neighbour warning him of another fire on his property. Jim’s thoughts went to his wife, sick at home and napping on the couch.

    “I phoned a couple of other neighbours to get over here and help her get out of the house.”

    The smoke was so thick it could be seen from Calgary. Dozens of firefighters from multiple fire stations, including Balzac, Langdon, Beiseker, Chestermere and Airdrie, responded.

    The couple said they have contacted CN Rail multiple times, and believe this could have been prevented if the company took their concerns seriously.

    “You phone CN and yell and wave your arms and jump up and down and you generally seemed to be ignored.  They have done nothing to mitigate any of the additional fire hazard along the track. They’ve not sprayed water, they’ve not done anything,” said Jim, his gaze fixed on the scorched earth around him.

    Rocky View County Fire Services confirmed the fire started near the railroad tracks, but said the cause remains under investigation.

    CN Rail acknowledged the Roberts’ allegations related to the latest fire, and suggested more time was needed to determine the cause.

    “I’ve looked into your inquiry and do not have any further updates,” spokesperson Kate Fenske said in an email to Global News. “The cause of the fire remains under investigation.”

    The Roberts are now focused on moving. Laurel has already started packing her most prized belongings in a shipping container in case of another fire.

    “The danger, the loss…we gotta get out of here.”