In the early mornings hours of September 13, 2017, an intense wildlfire raged through the Akamina and Red Rock valleys of Waterton Lakes National Park. Fuelled by dry trees and grasslands parched by a long hot summer, the fire raced through the park before leaping the highway and entering private land on the north and east sides of the park.
Image Tweeted by @WatertonLakesNP-Sep13-2017Tweet from @WatertonLakesNP Sep13-2017
The Kenow (Mountain) Fire as it has become known, was sparked by lightening, but could hardly be described as a surprise to Parks Canada (PC) as they were aware of it as early as August 30. At that time the fire was located in the Kishina Creek area of British Columbia’s Flathead Valley, and was a mere 5 hectares in size. It is my understanding that at that time, the Province of British Columbia was not actively engaged in fighting the fire as they perceived no imminent threat to human life, and given that this was their worst wildfire season on record, determined that their limited firefighting resources could be better utilized elsewhere.
So what happened exactly and how did this fire grow so large and so quickly?
By September 3rd, the fire first seen three days before had now grown to 4,000 hectares, prompting PC to close several areas of the park “down valley” of Sage and Kootenay Passes, including the Red Rock Parkway and all campgrounds and trails in that area of the park. According to PC’s website, by then a national incident management team had arrived on site along with three initial attack crews and three helicopters. The following day, two of those helicopters were used to bucket water on spot fires that had ignited in a northwest area of the park around the Sage Pass area.
On the 5th two more helicopters arrived although the fire within the park was only estimated to be about 0.5 hectare in size. At that time John Stoesser, the fire information officer for Waterton Lakes, was quoted by CBC News as saying "It's been a very hot and dry summer so there's been some significant movement of this fire over the past couple of days.”
Perhaps in anticipation of this, an evacuation alert for the Waterton townsite was issued. On its website, PC advised that “the Kenow Fire has not advanced further into the park but it continues to expand (on the BC side). There is no immediate threat, but this pre-emptive action allows us to be ready for a forecasted change in weather in a couple days.”
Having lived in Southern Alberta for over 40 years I am very familiar with the winds in this area, and how quickly they can pick up, especially during the spring and fall seasons. Given this, I’m wondering why water bombers were not deployed at this time, especially since PC officials knew an imminent change in the weather was expected.
Did the national incident management team (NIMT) still believe that helicopters were adequate for this task?
By Wednesday (the 6th), crews working on facility protection had installed pumps and sprinkler systems around the townsite as a preemptive measure, and on the 7th, helicopters were again deployed to reduce the chances of the fire spreading at Sage and Kootenay passes. In the event the fire did progress beyond these passes, fire crews identified and strengthened landscape features in the Akimina and Red Rock valleys that could hopefully act as containment lines. Again the PC website stated that the fire had not yet advanced into the park but was continuing to expand (now 7800 hectares) on the British Columbia (BC) side. Despite the growth in the size of the fire, PC did not consider it to be an imminent threat.
Image by: Parks Canada - KenowFireSept 9-10-2017
As a further preemptive measure, on the 8th fire trucks and crews from Taber, Coaldale, Lethbridge, Willow Creek, Calgary and Cardston began arriving to protect as much of the townsite as possible. A mandatory evacuation order for the Waterton townsite was then issued on Friday the 9th.
There were now six fire crews and seven helicopters on site to help fight the fire that the Province of Alberta finally confirmed had entered the park. Agriculture and Forestry Information Officer, Matthew Anderson, stated that there were 840 fire fighters at the ready, as well as land equipment and aircraft to move-in if needed.
Perhaps that was because PC spokesperson John Stoesser had been quoted as saying “We have seen this fire move within one burning period approximately seven to eight kilometres in one day. Our fire behaviour models show this fire is capable of moving very quickly.”
If this was the case, where were the water bombers?
By the 9th the fire had grown to approximately 8,500 hectares. Although much of it remained in BC, the fire within the park continued to move south along the Akamina Valley, approximately 15 to 20 kilometres from the Waterton townsite. Three helicopters continued bucketing water to the South Kootenay Pass until the afternoon when they were grounded due to high winds.
On Saturday (the 9th) with intense fire behaviour and smoke hampering visibility and fire suppression, the fire grew to 9400 hectares in size and advanced a further 5km down the Akamina Valley. With weather conditions causing intense fire behaviour also predicted for Sunday (10th) through Tuesday (12th), it wasn't looking as though conditions were going to get much better.
Meanwhile, on the 10th, two Canadian CL-415 aircraft continued fighting the Sprague Creek fire in Glacier National Park, Montana, less than 50 kilometres away.
On Monday the 11th, the fire had grown to approximately 11,000 hectares, and was firmly established in the Cameron Valley along the Akamina Parkway. There was also a fire in the Tamarack Basin that was expected to grow and move into the Blakiston Valley, towards the Red Rock Parkway.
As precautionary measures, highways 5 and 6 were closed at the boundaries of the park.
Image tweeted by: @WatertonLakesNP Sep 10, 2017
A tweet from Waterton Lakes NP on Sept 10 advised that the parks bison herd was now "safe and sound" in Grasslands National Park, more than 500 km away in southwestern Saskatchewan. Presumably they had been rounded up and shipped there the previous day, yet it appears that landowners just across the highway from the parks bison compound, had still not been issued with an evacuation alert.
The first of the evacuation orders was issued without warning for parts of the Municipal District (MD) of Pincher Creek just after 10 p.m. Monday where an estimated 150 residences were affected. Cardston County with a population of nearly 4,500 then declared a state of emergency shortly after 1 a.m. Tuesday. Then around 4 a.m. approximately 400 residents of the Blood Reserve were awoken from their beds and ordered to evacuate.
Due to high winds and critically dry fuels, on Tuesday the 12th, burning intensified as the fire moved northeast through the Cameron Valley along the Akamina Parkway. Once it reached the grasslands the fire then began to move north at a high rate of speed. During the day, four water bombers were finally seen simultaneously filling up at the Waterton Reservoir before returning to dump water on the fire. Despite these efforts however, the fire moved northeast out of the park.
On Tuesday night (12th) the Alberta government said firefighters had now been relieved by a second team and would continue to work (likely to protect the town) with 17 fire trucks on site. As of that time, they also advised there were now about 135 firefighters, nine Alberta air tankers and 14 helicopters within the park, with an additional 125 Alberta Forestry firefighters and 23 helicopters on standby, waiting for direction from the command team.
Despite this now impressive resource inventory, by Wednesday the 13th, the fire had encompassed approximately 35,000 hectares and at a news conference, wildfire information officer Leslie Lozinski admitted that “the fire is out of control, it is classified as 'out of control' and it will probably remain out of control for sometime until we see a significant change in the fire behaviour.” As if that weren't enough, an offshoot fire about 800 hectares in size was threatening the Castle area to the north, which was fought with helicopters, air tankers and heavy equipment.
Image by: Parks Canada - Kenow Fire Sept 12, 2017
Although it will take time to assess the full extent of the damage, I have no doubt that much of the park will eventually grow back to its former spectacular self, so that is the least of my concern. The media however have recently reported that the park Information Centre along with the Alpine Riding Stables have both been lost to the fire. Outside the park, the Garner family, owners of the Rocking Heart Ranch have reportedly lost their house, barn and riding arena to the fire.
As I try to understand the sequence of events pertaining to this fire, there are several questions that come to mind.
When it became clear that the Province of British Columbia was not fighting the Kenow fire, why did PC allow the fire to continue to grow? Why weren't helicopters called in to bucket this fire when it was first discovered (and only 5 hectares in size) on August 30th? Does a fire have to be a certain size in order for this to happen?
If the 800 hectare fire in the Castle area was fought with helicopters and air tankers, why wasn’t the Kenow fire when it was a similar size?
While I think answers to these questions are important, let me also say that I believe the personnel engaged in actively fighting this fire, did and continue to do, an excellent job with the resources made available to them. My questions are therefore not aimed at them, nor are they intended to be accusatory, I ask them simply to gain an understanding of why this fire was allowed to progress as it did.
It's my hope therefore that once this fire has been brought under control and fully extinguished, that there will be a number of debriefing sessions, followed by media press conferences and releases that will answer these questions so that we all may have a better understanding of what happened and why.
Until then, I would again like to thank the firefighters, pilots and everyone else involved in fighting this fire, and remain thankful that despite all of the damage to the park and surrounding area, there has been no loss of life.
UPDATE: Sept 15, 2017
Following a helicopter flyover of Waterton Lakes National Park to assess the damage caused by the Kenow fire, Foothills MP John Barlow said in a Facebook video that "The damage to Waterton is devastating," and that it is "Hard to fathom the damage until you see it."
In the video he states that 30 per cent of Waterton Lakes National Park has been severely damaged, and that 70 per cent of the forested area has been lost. Outside the park he also confirmed that "four or five homes" in the MD of Pincher Creek have also been lost.
Despite losses to the forested area and homes outside the park Barlow said the townsite is "completely unscathed", "the Prince of Wales hotel is fine," "the businesses are all fine, all the cottages are fine" and attributed much of that to the firefighters and the Firesmart protocol that PC had in place prior to the fire.
The PC website added that the "East Gate Warden Station sustained a total loss of the structure, equipment, and vehicles" and that the "Crandell Campground was significantly impacted by fire." The site went on to add that "Distribution lines from the park boundary to the townsite sustained significant damage" and that "Parks Canada and Fortis are currently working together to restore power." The site also advised that while "the fire did not demonstrate any further growth over night," it "still remains active and is classified as out of control."
UPDATE: September 18, 2017
According to PC, the Kenow Fire is still active and although classified as out of control, the fire activity is mostly located on the fire perimeter and at localized hotspots within it. Using GPS and satellite imagery PC now estimate the wildfire covers an area of approximately 38,100 hectares.
Highways 5 & 6 were reopened by Alberta Transportation and PC is planning a phased re-entry of the Waterton townsite for residents, leaseholders, and business owners beginning September 19, 2017.
UPDATE: Sept 19, 2017
Although the Kenow Fire remains active and covers an area of approximately 38,100 hectares, PC updated the fire classification to “being held.”
UPDATE: Sept 20, 2017
The Evacuation Order was lifted and the townsite re-opened for public access.