Waterton Lakes National Park ordered to evacuate as wildfire approaches

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A mandatory evacuation order has been issued for Waterton Lakes National Park and the Waterton townsite in southwestern Alberta as the Kenow wildfire in British Columbia approaches.

Residents and visitors must leave the area immediately, officials said as the evacuation order was issued Friday afternoon.

John Stoesser, spokesperson for Parks Canada, said this is only the second evacuation of Waterton Lakes he can recall, the first happening more than 50 years ago for a flood in June 1964.

Waterton has a year-round population of only 105, according to the 2016 census, but its rugged mountain peaks and emerald lakes draw hundreds if not thousands of visitors a day in the summer months.

Hotel manager Kevin Hicks was checking over the doors and windows at the Waterton Lakes Lodge Resort with his last remaining 10 staff members Friday afternoon when the evacuation order landed.

All of the guests had left by that point, Hicks said, after officials issued an alert on Sept. 5 warning that they may need to evacuate.

“It’s a bit of excitement, and kind of a lot of sadness in everybody here, too, that we have to leave. And we’re all thinking about Waterton Park,” he said.

Waterton evac

Parks Canada recommended this route for those evacuating from Waterton Lakes National Park. (Parks Canada)

Hicks said leaving their homes is especially difficult, not knowing what will remain when they come back, or even when that will be.

“Are we gonna be coming back soon?” he asked.

Change in weather sparks evacuation

The Kenow wildfire started west of Waterton last week after a lightning strike in the Flathead Valley just across the border in B.C., and is currently not contained, officials said Friday afternoon.

It has expanded to more than 7,800 hectares in size and advanced into Waterton Lakes National Park.

Authorities said a change in weather conditions has led to increased potential danger and hazards from the Kenow wildfire that necessitate the evacuation of the park.

Waterton Lakes evacuation sign

Smoke from nearby wildfires blocks out the horizon near Waterton Lakes National Park in southern Alberta on Friday. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

Parks Canada is working closely with wildfire and emergency management partners in the region to manage the fire, and has called for assistance from the Calgary Fire Department.

Chief Steve Dongworth said three heavy trucks and about 20 personnel were dispatched to Waterton Lakes on Friday to assist with “structural fire protection” if the wildfire enters the townsite.

Dongworth said the firefighters will focus on protecting buildings and property while other crews will focus on fighting the wildfire.

CFD Chief Steve Dongworth

Calgary Fire Department Chief Steve Dongworth says the department sent three heavy firefighting trucks and about 20 personnel to help with the efforts in Waterton Lakes National Park. (CBC)

“We do have experience [with wildfires] and we do have some knowledge with that. But when you get into forest kind of scenarios that really is a very specialized piece of work,” Dongworth said.

Dongworth said this is the fourth time Calgary firefighters have deployed outside the city for a wildfire emergency and crews have learned valuable lessons from fighting fires in Fort McMurray, Slave Lake and Cranbrook, B.C.

“One thing we learned was we need to send support with our people, we can’t just send our people alone.” The Calgary department has sent a mechanic and paramedic to assist firefighters.

Critical information for evacuees

Parks Canada advises evacuees to go to the reception centre at the Vertical Church on 1200 Ken Thornton Blvd. in Pincher Creek, Alta., to check in and get information.

Evacuees can also check in by phone at 403-904-0021 or by emailing mdinfo@mdpinchercreek.ab.ca.

Waterton smoky

The Waterton area — like many other parts of Alberta — has seen lingering wildfire smoke all summer, as in this photo from Aug. 1. Smoke from the wildfire may reduce visibility for people leaving the area, so officials urge motorists to take extra caution on the roads. (Kyle Muzyka/CBC)

The park has been closed to all incoming traffic except emergency vehicles. Highways 5 and 6 and the Chief Mountain Border crossing remain open.

Fleeing residents should close all windows and doors and shut off all gas and electrical appliances, other than refrigerators and freezers.

Parks Canada said to take critical items such as medicine, keys and wallets if they are immediately available.

Emergency personnel will check all houses and locations and mark them when cleared.

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Waterton Lakes National Park ordered to evacuate as wildfire approaches

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