September 27th, 2017 ~ Vol. 87 No. 39
Waterton Lakes National Park re-opens
It’s not a miracle, it’s firefighters’ efforts that helped save the park
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
Anna Kroupina Photo
A completely burnt field along Alberta Highway 6 in the MD of Pincher Creek, just outside Waterton Lakes National Park.
Pass Herald Reporter
On the surface, everything feels so normal walking through Waterton Village. It’s not until you look up and see the charred mountainside that you realize just how close the townsite and national park came to losing everything.

Waterton Lakes National Park welcomed back residents and business owners on September 19, 11 days after an immediate evacuation order went out as a result of significant danger to the public from the Kenow wildfire. The park opened its doors to visitors on September 20.

Summer resident and business owner Andrea Becker, who owns the Waterton Lakes Opera House-Movie Theater and Concert Hall with husband Larry, said being back was the end of a long stretch of very anxious days.

“It was a lot of days of not knowing, a lot of uncertainty and concern for the firefighters. We’re pretty much gob smacked. It was so far in the back country, we didn’t expect it to come down the valley so quick,” she said on September 20. “One person said that it’s a miracle, but it really isn’t. It’s the foresight of the firefighters and Parks Canada, but I think there’s a lot of luck to it as well.”

The Kenow wildfire started on August 30 from lighting in the Flathead Valley in British Columbia. When discovered by Waterton Lakes National Park fire crews, the fire was already approximately 6 hectares in size.
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Only one day later, it had grown to 100 hectares. A very aggressive rate of spread and challenging landscape made it difficult for crew to contain the fire.

Over the coming days, the fire kept increasing in size. The weather forecast kept calling for high winds, warm temperatures and low relative humidity continuing into the coming days. All these indications contributed to Waterton Lakes National Park deciding to implement an evacuation alert, followed by an evacuation order on September 8.

On September 10, Parks Canada entered into unified command with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry to cooperatively manage the wildfire, which had grown to 9,400 hectares. Structural fire departments from all over Southern Alberta came together to become familiar with the area and establish trigger points of the fire. Structured protection was installed on several backcountry facilities and a high volume sprinkler system was set up around the townsite.

The early collaboration between agencies is a major point that contributed to the positive result that we see today.

“Waterton Lakes National Park fire staff recognized very early that the fire represented a threat not only to Waterton Lakes National Park, but also surrounding lands. That recognition really set the stage for the preparedness that followed in the coming days with respect to making sure that property and people’s lives were safe,” says Incident Commander for Parks Canada Jed Cochrane.
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Throughout the afternoon and evening of September 11, the wildfire moved very quickly through the Akamina Parkway and the Red Rock Parkway down into townsite of Waterton and into the Municipal District of Pincher Creek and the County of Cardston.

Crews worked tirelessly throughout the night to contain the fire and by September 12, with still-dry weather conditions, the perimeter of the fire, 36,000 hectares by that point, was secured and held. Determined efforts continued throughout the next week and the townsite was finally considered to be safe for the public one week later, on September 19.

Although the townsite of Waterton is safe, crews continue to hold and battle the fire elsewhere in the national park.

“Given the current and forecasted weather with the resources that we have right now, this fire is not anticipated to grow any more,” says incident commander for Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, Rick Moore.
Incident Commander Cochrane noted that if not for the dedication, quick response and hard work of fire crew, there was a very real possibility that all could have been lost in Waterton.
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“There is no question in my mind that the early recognition of the risk by Waterton Lakes National Park fire staff set the stage, as well as the planning leading up to it, the timely evacuation alerts, the timely evacuation orders, moving people out safely, as well as all the efforts that those individuals put forward on the night of September 11 absolutely contributed to the fact that all these structures are still here,” he says. “It’s very rare in our jobs to see fire behaviour that is as challenging and as fast moving as this was on September 11. The fact that they were able to provide the loss of any life, but also prevent the loss of any significant structures within the Waterton townsite is truly remarkable and those individuals should be commended for the efforts that they put forward.”

All front-country and backcountry areas are currently closed. Visitors may access the entry road into Waterton, the townsite, Cameron Falls and the Cameron Bay day use area. Camping is not permitted anywhere in the park.

Trails will be opening in phases as repairs and safety measures are executed in the park. At this point, Parks Canada could not issue a timeline as to when trails would be open.

“We are working hard at seeing what may be possible for the winter. I don’t want to set any unrealistic expectations. I can’t confirm that this will happen. We are working very hard to see what type of visitor experience we will be able to offer in the medium term,” says Parks Canada spokesperson Natalie Fay. “Re-entry into the townsite was a fantastic first step, but we have a long road ahead of us and a lot of work.”
September 27th, 2017 ~ Vol. 87 No. 39
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