By Lethbridge Herald on September 20, 2017.
Lethbridge Herald — Waterton
The landscape has changed.
Parks Canada officials said Wednesday that 30 per cent of Waterton Lakes National Park — and about 70 per cent of the park’s forested area — has been affected by the Kenow Fire.
But the park did re-open Wednesday for the first time since an evacuation order was implemented almost two weeks ago, with a media tour followed an hour later by an expansion to the public.
Access is only permitted in the townsite and along the entrance road into the community. Services are limited, while the townsite campground is closed for the season and all outlying trails remain closed for the foreseeable future.
“There are fantastic places and viewpoints to see,” said Natalie Fay, emergency management information officer for Parks Canada for the Kenow Fire.
“We wouldn’t have let people in if it wasn’t safe. But people need to make sure they are respecting all of those barriers, all of the area closures. It is important to note that we are still managing an active fire elsewhere in the park, so this is for safety. We ask for everyone’s ongoing co-operation. Re-entry to the townsite is a fantastic first step, but we have a long road ahead of us and a lot of work.”
Crews were working in the area Wednesday, but full power restoration in the townsite may not be active until the end of next week. Some businesses in the townsite did re-open on Wednesday, though.
Larry Becker, Waterton Lakes Opera House owner and Waterton resident, said the past two days have a brought him different sentiments than he had for the preceding couple of weeks.
“Immense sense of relief; it’s way better than I anticipated,” he said.
“When I saw the satellite photos of the fire and the way it was spreading, I lost hope for the town. From the townsite, yeah, you can see the burn slopes but they’re going to be green again next summer with the undergrowth coming back. The townsite is in perfect condition.”
When Becker arrived back in Waterton Tuesday as part of the phased re-entry for residents, business owners and leaseholders, he was running on little sleep due to anxiety and anticipation. By Wednesday morning, he was putting up letters for his marquis to read “Thank you firefighters. You saved our town.”
“I saw a few other signs around town, and I thought ‘what a great idea.’ These guys are real heroes,” Becker said.
Among the first visitors back to the park Wednesday were members of the Lunsford family from Florida. They are visiting family in Great Falls and arrived to Waterton Wednesday afternoon hopeful the park would be open so they could see the Prince of Wales Hotel.
“Glacier (National Park, in Montana) and Waterton Lakes was on the list to do,” said Teri Lunsford. “We waited until 2 and it re-opened. They saved a lot buildings. It’s really amazing.”
“(I was) too young to remember,” added Morgan Lunsford of her first visit to Waterton. Wednesday was her second. The family had been planning the trip for weeks so they’ve been paying attention to news coverage of the Kenow Fire.
“We’re in Florida, so of course we had (Hurricane) Irma, too. It was hard but we were still keeping track because we knew we were coming here in a couple weeks. I’m glad it’s still here.”
The Kenow Fire is still classified as being held at about 38,000 hectares. The weather forecast is calling for more cool temperatures and precipitation, but officials say the fire and local hotspots will linger until heavy snowfall occurs.
“This fire is not anticipated to grow anymore,” said Rick Moore, Incident Commander for Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, adding that 121 personnel are still working, including 79 firefighters being supported by 10 helicopters. That level will be maintained for the foreseeable future as crews continue putting out the fire in strategic locations.
Early detection and recognition that the Kenow Fire could have a major impact was a significant factor in the preparedness that helped save the townsite, said Jed Cochrane, Parks Canada Incident Commander.
“We wanted to recognize the efforts, the professionalism and the bravery that was put forward the night of Sept. 11 by all the resources that were here,” he said.
“It’s very rare in our jobs to see fire behaviour that is as challenging and fast-moving as this was on Sept. 11. The fact that they were not only able to prevent the loss of any life, but also prevent the loss of any significant structures within the Waterton townsite is truly remarkable.”
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