January 20th, 2018

Fight to save Waterton

By Lethbridge Herald on September 12, 2017.

Herald photo by Ian Martens A fire truck heads down Highway 6 Tuesday morning near the community of Twin Butte as smoke rises from the mountains and foothills in the background. @IMartensHerald

Nick Kuhl
Lethbridge Herald
The Waterton Lakes National Park Visitors Centre burned to the ground, several nearby ranches were lost and fire activity went beyond the park gates forcing a new series of evacuation orders and local states of emergency.
Overnight Monday into Tuesday, the Kenow Wildfire grew by 50 per cent to roughly 20,000 hectares.
But nine Alberta airtankers, 14 helicopters and 135 firefighters, including about 60 structural firefighters from neighbouring municipalities, continued working Tuesday to protect structures within the perimeter of the Waterton townsite. A change in weather Wednesday may also help the “out of control” fire.
“Unfortunately, structures outside the perimeter have been lost, including the Visitor Centre and several out buildings,” said Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, speaking via teleconference from Fort McMurray.
“Crews are working hard to protect houses and other structures there and our latest information is that they have been successful. From the bottom of my heart, I’d like to thank the first responders working around the clock to fight this blaze. I’d like to thank communities affected by the fire for their co-operation in smooth evacuations. Albertans’ thoughts are with you.”
Scott Elliot, incident commander on site in Waterton for Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, said preparation work led to a successful operation of saving the townsite.
“The firefighters who were on scene, the fire approach, performed excellent work and the townsite was saved,” he said during a media teleconference call Tuesday night. “There was some damage to some structures through town there, but the overall preparation and work that we had done was excellent there last night (Monday) under very challenging conditions.”
“We’ll continue to work diligently to protect the townsite of Waterton,” said Ifan Thomas, Superintendent for Waterton Lakes National Park.
“Parks Canada understands that this is a very difficult situation,” said Natalie Fay, Parks Canada’s Emergency Management Information Officer for the Kenow wildfire, speaking to reporters outside the MD of Pincher Creek’s Administration Building Tuesday afternoon.
“The safety of residents, staff and fire crews and the protection of infrastructure in the community of Waterton are Parks Canada’s priorities.”
Fay said Monday night’s high winds and critically dry fuels led to the extreme fire behaviour and rapid growth.
“Burning intensified and the fire moved northeast down the Cameron Valley along the Akamina Parkway. Later in the evening, fire became visible from the townsite and then on the north side of Crandell Mountain. The fire began to move north at a high rate of spread through the grasslands along the park’s Entrance Road,” she said.
“Extensive fire protection measures were effective in safeguarding the majority of infrastructure and facilities within the community and at the Prince of Wales hotel. Firefighters worked tirelessly throughout the night to extinguish spot fires, monitor sprinkler protection and protect facilities. High-volume pumps and sprinkler systems, in combination with planning and fuel management done in previous years, ensured the townsite perimetre held.”
Firefighters working within Waterton were relieved Tuesday by a second team who will continue their work with 17 fire trucks on site. Alberta Forestry has an additional 125 firefighters and 23 helicopters on standby, waiting for direction from the incident command team.
“Fire is dynamic; fire changes from moment to moment,” said Leslie Lozinski, a wildfire information officer for Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. “We had extreme fire behaviour (Monday). We had resources on that fire all night.”
Despite the resources, the Kenow wildfire spread into Cardston County and the Municipal District of Pincher Creek on Tuesday.
A mandatory evacuation was issued late Monday night for a section of the MD of Pincher Creek from South Highway 505 to Waterton Lakes National Park and Castle Mountain Resort. An estimated 150 residences are affected.
A reception centre has been set up at the Vertical Church at 1200 Ken Thornton Blvd. in Pincher Creek. Residents evacuating should go to the reception centre or call 403-904-8016 to register.
“Our thoughts are with those affected by the fire,” said Brian Hammond, Reeve for the MD of Pincher Creek.
“This is a community situation,” said Pincher Creek Mayor Don Andenberg, adding the town was not in a state of emergency, but shares emergency service with the MD. “We have the resources here to handle things right now. We are working on a contingency plan. Everyone is working on the citizens’ behalf.”
More than 50 homes in Cardston County between Waterton Lakes National Park and Highway 800 from the U.S. border north to Township Road 40 also faced a mandatory evacuation just before midnight Monday. An evacuation centre for them is located at 1050 Main Street in Cardston.
“We feel very fortunate today (Tuesday), we really do,” said Cardston County Reeve Jim Bester. “We’re not out of the woods yet. We don’t know how this is going to end yet. But it’s going to end OK. We’ll get through this.”
As the Kenow wildfire advanced to about five kilometres from the Blood Reserve on Tuesday, a mandatory evacuation was issued for areas of the Blood Tribe in Zone 1, including Fish Creek, and the St. Paul’s area extending north to Russell and Many Fingers residences. An evacuation advisory was issued for Zone 3, including north of Russell and Many Fingers residences extending to Lavern and little Chicago area.
An estimated 180 people have been affected, officials there said. A reception centre has been set up in the Standoff multipurpose building, and residents are asked to register at the multipurpose building even if they do not intend to stay there.
The evacuation orders were assisted by door to door visits by the RCMP and Parks Canada staff.
“We are managing evacuation points,” said RCMP Cpl. Curtis Peters. “We’ve got roadblocks in place at various places to make sure no unauthorized entry of the evacuation zone takes place.”
As of late Tuesday, there was no evacuation orders for Beaver Mines, Cowley, Lundbreck or the Piikani Nation.
Three Westwind Schools were closed Tuesday: Mountain View School, Spring Glen Elementary School and Spring Glen Junior High School. They will be closed again Wednesday, the school board said.
Mike Swystun, public health inspector with Alberta Health Services, also said air quality advisories across southern Alberta will remain in effect until there is no risk from wildfire smoke. There is no specific timeline, he said.
“Stay inside if you have breathing difficulties,” Swystun said.
Beyond the evacuation centres, offers of support to take in displaced people and animals stretched across southern Alberta. Among them was Exhibition Park in Lethbridge offering space for emergency evacuees looking for RV parking, and the Lethbridge Therapeutic Riding Association offering space for livestock.
Firefighting efforts will continue through Wednesday, when temperature changes and possible precipitation may assist.
“We are preparing for one more day of extreme fire behaviour before a potential change in the weather,” Lozinski said. “I think we are going to be in a better position.”
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