Unprecedented measures taken as wildfire bears down on Waterton

By Lethbridge News Now (Dori Modney)
September 11, 2017 - 10:13am

WATERTON LAKES NP - In terms of scale, Waterton’s size doesn’t rival some of its more famous big brothers but, it’s the smallest national park to be named a World Heritage site and it is known and loved around the world. It’s breaking the hearts of many to hear that an encroaching wildfire prompted evacuation of the park and its town site on Friday (Sept 8).  Something that has never happened before.

Officials are not allowing anyone, other than firefighters and emergency workers, back into the town site. When a reporting team from LethbridgeNewsNOW arrived at the park gate Sunday afternoon, two RCMP officers were guarding the perimeter. Officers Dale and Mike were taken off of their usual duties in Claresholm and Calgary. They were polite, but offered an emphatic ‘No’, to an intermittent onslaught of visitors who asked if they could be allowed in to take pictures. They maintained the demeanor, in spite of the smoke stinging their eyes and making it hard to breath.

The Kenow fire raging on the western flank of the park, on the B.C. side of the border has increased in size from 7,800 hectares at mid-week, up to 9,400 hectares by Sunday afternoon.  It has only stuck its tentacles into the park so far and fire crews have managed to put out the spot fires including one in the Tamarack Basin and the South Kootenay Pass, where helicopter crews bucketed water onto the flames.  Fire officials expected to be able to hold the blaze on the Alberta side of the border.

However, a statement sent out Sunday (Sept10) evening confirmed the fire continued to advance southeast along the Akamina Valley and was expected to continue in that direction through the night. There is a high probability the wildfire will reach the B.C. and Alberta border tonight (Sunday) and enter Waterton Lakes National Park near Cameron Lake.

The statement also noted, “Unified Command is prepared if the fire rounds the corner at Akamina Pass and enters into the park in the Cameron Valley near Cameron Lake. We are activating a mobilized command centre should it be needed and removing support personnel from the park. Wildland and structural crews will remain in the park and town site to continue firefighting efforts.”

A unified command has been set-up between Parks Canada and Alberta Agriculture and Forestry to coordinate efforts.  Resources have been accessed from the surrounding area, including Coaldale, Taber, the M.D. of Willow Creek, Lethbridge and Calgary. Those resources include access to 670 firefighters, 72-helicopters, 50 pieces of heavy equipment and 16 air-tankers.

On Sunday, three helicopters, along with air-tankers were fighting the wildfire on the Alberta side of the border.  As well, other aircraft were stationed at the Pincher Creek airfield.

Also, an Alberta Emergency Management Agency (AEMA) mobile emergency vehicle is located in Waterton and serving as an operations centre. Cardston County Fire Department, which has been assigned to respond to structural fires in Waterton, requested and received an on-site ambulance medical unit.

The past few days have seen fire protection resources placed around the town site. Those resources include a web of fire hose and sprinkler systems which are taking water from the lake to ‘hose down’ buildings. The Calgary fire contingent has been assigned to protect the 90-year old Prince of Wales Hotel, which sits stoically on the hill over-looking Emerald Bay and Waterton Lake.  The Calgary group includes about a dozen firefighters and a couple of pumper trucks that will douse the wood structure hotel and its myriad balconies, should embers come fly its way.

While communities as far away as Lethbridge were shrouded in smoke on Saturday and many areas dealt with falling ash, there was a break in the sky over-night.  However, the Waterton area continued to be enveloped in smoke Sunday afternoon.  The Prince of Wales Hotel couldn’t be seen from the highway and while a chopper could be heard loudly overhead, it couldn’t be seen through the thick brown smoke.

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