Thursday, September 21, 2017

Waterton re-opens after Kenow fire evacuation

The Evacuation Order issued on September 8 for Waterton Lakes National Park has been rescinded. The Waterton townsite is no longer at risk from the Kenow fire On September 19 a phased re-entry was effected for some residents, leaseholders, and business owners. Yesterday, September 20, all residents, leaseholders, business owners as well as members of the public were allowed to re-enter the park. Services remain significantly reduced. At this time, only the entrance road, Chief Mountain Highway and the community of Waterton are open. All other roads and areas in the park remain closed for safety reasons. Due to the high intensity of the fire, there are a large number of danger trees, rock falls, and other hazards that remain throughout the park. The Kenow wildfire remains active in certain areas and suppression efforts continue. Personnel from various specialized fields are working to reduce hazards such as danger trees, and to assess the state of roadways and other infrastructure. The fire is now classified as being held.

The park is not open for camping. Camping will not return this season. The townsite loop walking trail is open, but other outlying trails remain closed.

As of September 20, according to Alberta Wildfire, the Fire Danger Rating is Low across the province, and Moderate in the northern boreal and Southern Slopes. According to a Calgary Forest Area Wildfire Update issued September 19, the Forest Area Closure for the Calgary Forest Area has been lifted, but a Fire Ban, OHV prohibition and advisory remains in effect. A Fire Ban remains in effect for the Calgary Forest Area (CFA) section of the Forest Protection Area (FPA) south of highway 532. All existing Fire Permits are suspended. No new Fire Permits will be issued. Open fires in campgrounds, the backcountry or random camping areas are NOT permitted. Charcoal briquettes, turkey fryers, tiki torches, fireworks, and exploding targets are NOT permitted. Portable propane fire pits, Gas or propane stoves, barbecues and heaters (catalytic/infrared) ARE permitted. The Fire Ban will remain in effect until conditions improve. Click here for the most current information.

A media tour (see video above) was conducted on September 20, with briefings from Unified Command members including Parks Canada Media Relations Chief Natalie Fay, Parks Canada Incident Commander Jed Cochrane, and Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Wildfire Operations Officer Rick Moore.

Fay asked that people watch for wildlife as they may behave erratically as they are stressed, and displaced, and also asked that people refrain from feeding the wildlife.  She urged people to stay on the pathway (the townsite loop) at this time. Although there is no immediate danger from fire, many trees have been weakened by fire, and may not be stable.  An estimated 70% of the Waterton Park forested area has been affected.

According to Cochrane the fire was likely cause by lightning, and was approximately 38,000 hectares in size at the time of the briefings yesterday afternoon.  He said the fire is being held and is not anticipated to grow.

Cochrane emphasized how impressed he was by the bravery, efforts, and professionalism of the people who battled the fire on September 11 through the day and into the night, and into September 12, a period of time when the Waterton townsite was most at risk.  "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 not only able to prevent the loss of any life, but also to prevent the loss of any significant structures in Waterton townsite is truly remarkable, and those individuals should be commended for the effort they put forward. It was truly amazing, and something neither Rick nor I have seen in our careers."

On September 11 the fire crossed approximately 50 hectares into Waterton Lakes National Park from British Columbia. It was approximately 15 kilometres from the Waterton townsite in the afternoon. Challenging winds contributed to the fire being firmly established in the Cameron Valley along the Akamina Parkway in the evening. Fire in the Tamarack Basin began to grow and move into the Blakiston Valley and towards the Red Rock Parkway. Heavy smoke complicated firefighting efforts, and the high winds were an extreme challenge for helicopter pilots bucketing the fires. The fire crossed the park's eastern boundary, prompting September 12 evacuations (since rescinded) for Division 1 of the M.D. of Pincher Creek, parts of Cardston County, and Zone 1 of the Blood Reserve. To the west, Castle Mountain Resort was also evacuated on September 12, and that evacuation has also been rescinded.

Assessing the impact is an ongoing process. "We are saying 30% of the park, and 70% of the forested area of the park," said Cochrane. He was optimistic about the park's ability to rebound. "It's going to be green here in the spring."

Over 100 power poles were destroyed lost from the park boundary to inside the townsite. Fortis estimates all power will be reconnected within three weeks.

Remains of the Visitor Centre
Parks Canada reports that no homes or businesses within the townsite were lost or damaged.  "The main Prince of Wales Hotel building has not been impacted by fire, however some surrounding facilities are damaged. In addition, the Red Rock and Cameron Lake day-use areas and facilities, including the Alpine Club of Canada hut, have not been damaged due to fire. The Waterton Lakes Golf Course clubhouse sustained minor damage to the exterior."  Alpine Stables, a major Waterton attraction, was destroyed.  Also destroyed was the Visitor Centre, which had previously been slated for replacement.  "Crandell Campground was significantly impacted by fire. Outlying infrastructure around the Parks Canada Operations Compound were impacted and the Bison Paddock suffered damage to the facilities and the fence."

"Due to the high intensity of the fire, there are a large number of danger trees, rock falls, and other hazards that remain throughout. Moreover, guardrails, signage, and other minor infrastructure were heavily impacted."

A number of initiatives to assist those affected by the wildfire have occurred, are underway, or are planned.  They will be the subject of a separate article.

Story credits:  T. Lucas and C. Davis, with extensive quotes from a variety of related press releases.  Photos and video T. Lucas unless otherwise noted.

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