WATERTON, Alta. — Fire crews halted the spread of a wildfire into the Waterton Lakes National Park townsite on Tuesday, but they were not able to save the visitor’s centre or stop the flames from spreading into grasslands outside the southwestern Alberta park.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said 500 people were ordered out of their homes in the Waterton townsite and in parts of nearby Cardston County, the Municipality of Pincher Creek and a First Nations community southwest of Lethbridge.
Remaining residents in Cardston, Pincher Creek and on the Blood reserve were warned they may have to leave on short notice. All three communities declared states of local emergency.
Some 135 firefighters, 14 helicopters and nine air tankers were battling the blaze in the park and more resources were on standby, Notley said.
“We’re advised that efforts to fight the eastern border of the fire are likely to be more successful today during the day with the use of tanker and helicopter resources,” she said.
At a news conference late Tuesday night, participants described how the behaviour of the wildfire, which grew by 330 square kilometres, dramatically shifted through the overnight period due to high winds and extremely dry conditions.
Scott Elliot, incident commander for Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, called it “high intensity.”
“Fortunately when the fire was moving quickly through the park toward the Waterton townsite, the preparation work that had been done by all the firefighting resources up there and the pre-planning work that we’d done led to a successful operation,” he said.
“The townsite was saved — there was some damage to some structures throughout the town, but the overall preparation and work that we’ve done was excellent … under some very challenging conditions.”
The visitor’s centre which was burned to the ground had been built in 1958. Parks Canada had been intending on replacing it anyway.
Don Anderberg, the mayor of Pincher Creek, called the experience “pretty scary.”
“Midnight, one o’clock, it looked like the town of Pincher Creek may be fully involved in this event,” he said, adding conditions had improved by Tuesday night.
“But that can certainly change. We have developed a plan to evacuate the rest of the MD … and a plan to evacuate the town of Pincher Creek if need be.”
Cardston County Reeve Jim Bester called it a rocky 24 hours, but said he was grateful for the work of his staff and provincial officials “who came down and helped us get through the night.”
Like Anderberg, he said the area isn’t out of the woods yet but he is hopeful.
“We’re all one family here. We’re very blessed with where we live and the opportunities we have. We’ll get through this. We don’t know exactly how it’s going to end yet, but it’s going to end OK.”
An evacuation order was issued for Waterton on Friday when shifting winds threatened to carry a fire burning across the B.C. boundary eastward.
By late Monday afternoon, the fire was established in the park and was moving northeast along the Akamina Parkway, a road that connects a popular recreational area at Cameron Lake in the park’s southwest to the townsite.
Evacuation orders outside the park were issued late Monday and early Tuesday.
Forestry manager Bernie Schmitte said a grass fire ignited near the park’s gate on Monday night, probably due to a blowing ember from the wildfire.
Crews were unable to stop the flames from spreading along both sides of Highway 6 and the fire burned until early Tuesday.
“Strong gusty winds continue to be in the forecast for the region, which has proved to be a challenge to firefighting efforts and we’ll be monitoring that through the day,” he said.
Rain in the forecast for later this week should help, he added.
“Whenever we do get (precipitation), that is a good firefighting day and we will make progress on that.”
Blood officials ordered everyone out early Tuesday from homes and apartments in the extreme southwest corner of the reserve. Fire Chief Oscar Cotton said that affected about 50 homes and 100 people were in the evacuation centre.
“The only problem that we really have is the massive amount of smoke we’re getting from that fire,” Cotton said.
Lockey Craig, who has property just east of the park, drove down with his wife from Calgary on Monday night when it looked like the situation was worsening.
They managed to load some photo albums and other keepsakes into his vehicle before the area was put under an evacuation order late Monday night. Craig figures he got 2 1/2 hours of sleep at a niece’s house in nearby Cardston.
He said when he was at his property, he could see smoke billowing out from the mountains in the park and there was ash falling from the sky.
“We live at least 10 kilometres away from the (park) gate and it looked like it was snowing.”
Craig is the president of Waymarker Hospitality, which owns several hotels and restaurants within the park’s townsite, He said the park’s closure during one of the busiest tourist months will hurt.
“It is what it is. I’m very sad about what’s happened,” he said. “I’m very sad about the whole backcountry. Nothing we can do, though.”
Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna praised the work of firefighters on the ground.
“It has been a tough situation,” she said outside a cabinet meeting in St. John’s, N.L. “It was a tough night and they’ve been working extremely hard.”
Shell Canada said it was keeping a close eye on its sour gas plant operation in the area.
The company said it planned to gradually shut in wells and facilities close to the flames. Staff doing the work were being accompanied by fire suppression teams to ensure safety.
— By Lauren Krugel in Calgary, with files from Ken Trimble and John Cotter in Edmonton and Sue Bailey in St John’s.
The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version misspelled Bernie Schmitte’s name