WATERTON LAKES NATIONAL PARK- Nearly two weeks after an evacuation order was issued for Waterton Lakes National Park in the face of the Kenow wildfire, it has once again opened to the public.
Having said that, only the entry road to the park and the Waterton townsite are open for the time being, as there has been extensive damage to the surrounding area. An assessment of that damage is ongoing, and until that is complete, access to other parts of the park will be limited.
“The reason for that is safety,” stated Parks Canada spokesperson, Natalie Fay, who also pointed out that while the fire is no longer considered out of control, it remains active in the area. “People need to keep in mind that we still have a long road ahead of us and a lot of work needs to be done, especially in the outlying areas where we're focussing on doing detailed damage assessments.
“One thing that we do ask is that as people are allowed back into the park and the townsite, that they do respect the area closures. Do not go out into any burnt areas,” added Fay.
“There are still very high risks to public safety back there,” Fay continued, discussing the closed trails and parkways. “We are looking at things like danger trees, unstable slopes, which create the potential for rock slides. Along parkways, guardrails have been burned out, speed and traffic signs as well. If anyone does disobey those rules, they are putting their life at risk.”
She noted that Parks Canada wardens will be patrolling the area, to ensure people aren’t venturing into dangerous territory.
Inside the townsite, Fay acknowledged that while power has been restored, they are advising people that it could still be disrupted and that they should be prepared to be self sufficient.
There’s also a safety concern from local wildlife that were driven into the townsite to escape the wildfire, which Fay says consumed approximately 30 per cent of the park.
“We've had bear sightings around the townsite that are a little more frequent than we've seen. And one thing that people need to keep in mind, is some of these animals are displaced, they're looking for food, they might be stressed out or disorientated from the events of the past few weeks. So, we ask that people give them their space, as we always do,” explained Fay.
“We know that people are concerned about them, they might be tempted to try to feed them. Don’t do that. Feeding an animal doesn't help them, it actually puts them at risk, because they can become accustomed to unnatural food sources, which makes them a risk for the public, which means that we may end up having to put them down.”
For anyone who has concerns about an animal inside the townsite, Fay advises you to report it to Parks Canada staff by calling 1-888-WARDENS (1-888-927-3367).
The decision to allow people back in
During a media briefing shortly before the park re-opened, Incident Commanders Jed Cochrane and Rick Moore discussed the process of reaching this point.
“We had some really clear objectives that we wanted with respect to containment of the fire in some key locations,” stated Cochrane, who noted that they set up a suppression zone that goes 200 feet out from the townsite, as well as the park entrance, in which they extinguished all fires and hotspots. “We supported that with some aerial scans, infrared scans that showed us where heat was, and that led us to the conclusion that opening the park today was a safe decision.”
Cochrane said the cooler weather conditions, along with some precipitation helped a great deal, and Moore pointed out that it is also the reason for increased optimism in regard to the fire in the Castle area.
“The weather patterns really switched. We were in summer on Sept. 11. By Sept. 13, we saw a really dramatic shift going into fall,” continued Moore. “And so, with the weather the way it is right now, we don't really see any threat imminent. We've scaled back the structure protection.
“We are very, very confident that there's no threat at this time.”
While everything in the Waterton townsite escaped damage, along with the Prince of Wales Hotel, the list of losses is still significant.
Cochrane went over the structures that had previously been noted as lost, including the visitors centre, Alpine Stables and the East Gate Warden Station. He noted that Parks Canada facilities at the Red Rock Parkway sustained significant damage, along with those at the Crandell Mountain Campground. He also touched on the lost signage and guardrails, which Fay touched on earlier.
On the positive side, the facilities at Cameron Lake were completely saved, while just one outhouse building was lost on the Akamina Parkway. Inspections of bridges and roads throughout the area also revealed that they were unscathed.
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