Alberta couple calls off fire crews because they couldn’t pay to keep them at blaze on property

When an Alberta couple couldn’t afford to keep fire crews at the scene of a property fire, they finished the jobs themselves.

On Jan. 28, stray ash from a coil boiler caused a fire just steps away from Samantha and Dale Zemlack’s property in Beaver County, igniting a propane tank.

The back view of Samantha Zemlack’s property fire. Courtesy: Samantha Zemlack

Volunteer fire crews worked to put out the fire, but after 24 hours, the propane tank was still burning. Samantha said the fire chief inquired with the couple if they had insurance. He said things were getting “expensive.”

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“We were under the impression that our municipal taxes paid for firefighting services,” Samantha Zemlak said. “We thought as taxpayers that it was part of the services provided by the county.

“We didn’t realize we were responsible for paying for the services.”

The Beaver Region (Tofield, Viking, Ryley, Holden and Beaver County) has an agreement with the Beaver Emergency Services Commission (BESC) that it will collectively share the cost of services that can’t be recovered from landowners.

“Through property taxes, landowners pay for the fire service to be available and ready when they need it, such as paying for firefighter training or maintenance of the hall,” explained Margaret Jones, assistant chief administrative officer for the county.

“But BESC has also set up its own fee structure, so that if there’s a fire response, then there is an expectation the landowner will pay for a portion of the cost associated with that service.”

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Samantha Zemlak confirmed with her insurance company that they had $10,000 coverage for firefighting. Her total invoice for fire services would end up being more than $62,000.

“You have to make a decision on financial realities. It was a shock. We had absolutely no idea,” she said.

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“At that point, we had to decide, ‘Can we afford to keep the crew on site?’ There was a lot of discussion if it was safe for the crews to leave.

“There was a propane tank that had begun flaring… it was unstable at one point.”

Alberta treasury board and finance press secretary Kassandra Kitz said though fire insurance is not mandatory in Alberta, “we do know it’s common for insurance policies to limit the amount that they will pay for firefighting costs, but these amounts are not prescribed in insurance legislation.”

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The Zemlaks chose to release fire crews from the site for financial reasons and the couple accepted responsibility of the scene, agreeing to provide 24-hour watch over the propane tank.

“In consultation with the owners and the risk of explosion minimized, the scene can be turned over to a responsible party,” BESC’s Allan Weiss told Global News in an email. “This is only done when we can be assured that the situation will not escalate.

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“The property owner then signs a release form acknowledging the hazards and any steps they need to take to see the incident to a safe conclusion. This is a common practice.”

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Samantha Zemlak said fire crews explained the best scenario would be if the flame on the propane diminished and the couple could put it out themselves.

“It was a horrible event. The crews, when they left, they knew what they were leaving us with. They felt horrible for us. I appreciate all that they did in trying to help us and guide us.”

The propane tank was put out Jan. 31. At 3 a.m., that morning, Samantha and Dale Zemlak noticed a change in the propane flame and went outside with a garden hose to put it out.

“It was -25 C,” Samantha Zemlak said. “At one point, the nozzle froze and we had to thaw it out.

“We were told (prior) to spray the top of the tank to extinguish the flame and then keep spraying for an hour in order to cap it, to seal any vapours that might escape.

“This is a situation families shouldn’t be put in. It shouldn’t be a case of whether you can afford to save your property and belongings. That’s our concern.”

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