Blazing Unpredictability

The power of wildfires and how it affects Albertans

Burned trees in Waterton two weeks after the Kenow fire. Photo by Arianna Korbett.

Burned trees in Waterton two weeks after the Kenow fire. Photo by Arianna Korbett.

How respondents fight the flames and how you can help

Wildfire safety procedures and how to prepare for the next one.

Wildfires are a natural occurrence that can sweep through buildings and landscapes in an instance. In order to combat this threat, fire fighters and residents have to be prepared, and able to think quickly and safely in an emergency.

What form of activity creates wildfires

“Weather is a big factor of what we come up against,” says Matt Bell a provincial information officer for the agriculture and forestry division in the Alberta government. Every wildfire is different and the amount of time a fire lasts is dependent on a number of factors, says Bell. However, temperature, wind speed and wind direction are the major issues when dealing with wildfire suppression.

Another issue firefighters face is the amount of manpower and equipment at their disposal. It comes down to managing resources effectively and having firefighters in the best positions around the province in order to have our bases covered, he says.

“May is typically when you start to see the number of wildfires increase,” says Bell. Wildfires can begin in early March and April however, it is dependent on the precipitation over the winter season. May is considered the starting point for wildfire season because of the warm and dry weather.

“On average we are seeing that 60 per cent of wildfires are human caused,” says Bell. “Because they are human caused that makes them 100 per cent preventable.” The remaining 40 per cent are started by lightning strikes.

The agriculture and forestry division encourages visitors and Albertans to follow safe practices, says Bell. This includes proper campfire procedures and to check the hotspots under off-road vehicles for debris buildup, because they have been shown to cause wildfires, he says.

The government and parks has created numerous prevention tactics and measures to deal with wildfires; however, it is dependent on staying vigilant, and making sure everyone follows the same precautions during wildfire seasons, says Bell.

Preparing and protecting homes and buildings

When a disaster occurs, wildfires or otherwise, respondents often prepare years down the line in order to have experience dealing with multiple crisis situations.

Zachary Cox, a teaching assistant at the University of Delaware, explains that respondents often update their plans and practice following them. Cox explains that within a table-top exercise “...you get everybody in a room, you tell them there’s a disaster and then they would either talk through or act out how they would respond,” and that a full exercise would be acting out the scenario with equipment.

According to a page done by Emergency Preparedness, full-scale exercises often are “a multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional, multi-discipline exercise involving functional (e.g., joint field office, emergency operation centers, etc.) and “boots on the ground” response (e.g., firefighters decontaminating mock victims).”

In the case of wildfires, depending on the magnitude, the closest fire departments to the blaze will often be called first in order to understand the fire's pattern. After judging the magnitude, wildfire fighters will call in colleagues from Calgary in order to offer more assistance with protecting and preparing the towns.

“Wildfires can evolve extremely rapidly depending on weather conditions, wind, all those things” says Mike Carter, president of the Calgary Fire Department.

According to Carter, the Calgary Fire Department primarily focuses on structural fires, so whenever a wildfire occurs they “protect the structures at the borders and inside the borders of the town.”

Evacuation notices are sent out to homeowners, depending on the threat level. Firefighters can evacuate citizens at any time. Each one is time sensitive “so you know you’re on a two-hour evacuation notice, so within two hours you need to be out... or they can come around and say ‘yeah we need you to leave right away,’” says Carter.

Unfortunately, Carter explains that when it comes to wildfires, it can be so unpredictable so it could be hard to come up with a plan.

According to Carter, there are four pieces to stopping a wildfire heading towards town or city:

  • Take away the oxygen

  • Take away the heat

  • Take away the chemical reaction

  • Take away the fuel from an approaching fire.

Alberta wildfire fighters burning away dry grass in communities to remove buildup and to reduce the risk of a wildfire. Photo courtesy of Alberta Wildfire.

Alberta wildfire fighters burning away dry grass in communities to remove buildup and to reduce the risk of a wildfire. Photo courtesy of Alberta Wildfire.

Carter explains that firefighters would create a firebreak in the trees or grass in order to take away the fuel; while the fire approaches. Another option, is to cool and wet down the surrounding area with a sprinkler system to suppress the fire.

Alberta Wildfire creating a firebreak. Photo courtesy of Matt Bell.

Alberta Wildfire creating a firebreak. Photo courtesy of Matt Bell.

Carter says if municipalities were aware of the wildfire’s general location sooner, fire departments could implement prevention methods quicker. As a result, respondents will not always be able to make it in time when a fire hits town.

Tips for homeowners

Laura Stewart is the president of FireSmart Canada, a national not-for-profit organization, that creates programs, resources, and tools designed to better protect the public and reduce wildfire risks.

The most vulnerable part of a house is the roof, says Stewart.

“Make sure you have a non-combustible ignition resistant class A-rated, fire rated roof in good repair.”

According to Stewart, it is critically important for neighbors to work together. She explains that the changes and choices that homeowners make “with the home itself, and everything else to 100 metres from the foundation [of the house] dramatically influence how a wildfire is going to approach and impact your home.”

Stewart explains that it is important to have a “one-point-five metres, non-combustible surface that extends around your entire home.”

Stewart explains having junipers, spruce trees, and firewood within ten metres of a home can increase the risk.

“It’s waiting for fires and when it does ignite, it’s going to burn quite fiercely. So by removing the amount of collectible fuel that is available within that 10 metres of your home, definitely within one-point-five metres, you don’t want anything combustible. That was our strongest suggestion.”

Nadin Boegelsack, instructional assistant in Environment sciences at Mount Royal University explains the link between climate change and wildfires.

Nadin Boegelsack, instructional assistant in Environment sciences at Mount Royal University explains the link between climate change and wildfires.

Waterton Lakes National Park, 2 weeks after the Kenow Wildfire. Photo by Arianna Korbett.

Waterton Lakes National Park, 2 weeks after the Kenow Wildfire. Photo by Arianna Korbett.

Blazing Unpredictability: The stats

How wildfires hurt wallets, lungs and wildlife

Wildfires can affect more than your homes or communities. It can also affect a broad range of areas in society from wildlife to tourism.

Wildfires can cause wide devastation and hundreds of people lose their homes as a result of uncontrollable blazes. If left unattended wildfires can burn through a large portion of land. After the devastation it can take years to rebuild.

The Fort McMurray fires in 2016 burned 5,890 kilometers of land.

According to Wildfire Alberta, about 731,634 hectares of wildfires were human caused back in 2011. Comparatively, about 38,655 hectares were human caused by 2015.

However, 2011 also had the lowest number of hectares burned down by lightning, with about 74,246 total. Meanwhile, 433,044 were burned down by lightning in 2015.

In total, by 2011, about 91 per cent were caused by humans and only 9 per cent from lightning. While about 8 per cent from human causes and 92 per cent by lightning in 2015.

Wildfires are an expensive business because of the equipment and people needed to subdue the blaze. According to the Review of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry: Wildfire Management Program, in 2011, 2012, and 2015 expenditures amounted between $250 million and $400 million. During active years of wildfires in Alberta the costs are comparable to British Columbia and Ontario.

To the other end of the spectrum Fort McMurray cost a total of $3.7 billion comparatively, making it the most expensive natural disaster in the country according to StatsCan. However even though the town suffered a major housing crisis, the wildfire created an economic boom.

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Wildfires can be dangerous for people’s health especially with relation to smoke. My Health Alberta says people with a heart or lung disease, a smoker, older adults, pregnant women and children are at a higher risk for smoke inhalation. According to My Health Alberta, smoke can cause burning eyes, runny nose, coughing, or an illness like bronchitis.

Wildfires not only burn into the province’s pocket they also affect the tourism industry. According to a study by the International Journal of Wildland Fire a wildfire reduces revenue for tourism and outdoor activities. The change in the trees and landscape proves to have negative effects for activities in the mountains such as hiking or biking.

  • In 2017 businesses in the Kamloops region lost $100,000 from cancellations in July

  • 47 per cent of businesses report interruptions either from cancellations or road closures

  • Barkerville Historic Town and Park reported a 54 per cent decline

Wildfires can have a big hit on individuals' businesses. Todd Johnson, a director with Alpine Helicopters, told the Canadian Press that they had around 10,000 guests cancel which lead to a $1-million revenue shortfall.

After the wildfire tore through the Cariboo-Chilcotin region of B.C. in 2017, a survey found that about 20.18 per cent of business owners experienced huge financial loss from wildfires. About 4.05 per cent of those were not-for-profit.

Wildfires not only impact people in fact they endanger the whole ecosystem. Nature Conservancy Canada says in recent years wildfires have been more severe and burn larger areas due to climate change. Wildfires are an important factor in rejuvenating certain plants; however, they can negatively impact wildlife in boreal forests.

Waterton Lakes National Park, looking up at Bear's Hump from the townsite which was stripped from the Kenow Wildfire 2 weeks prior. Photo by Arianna Korbett.

Waterton Lakes National Park, looking up at Bear's Hump from the townsite which was stripped from the Kenow Wildfire 2 weeks prior. Photo by Arianna Korbett.

Kenow Wildfire: Too close for comfort

How Waterton Lakes National Parks is recovering from the massive wildfire in 2017

On the evening of August 30, 2017, a large thundercell developed over Northwest Montana and moved north up the Flathead valley into B.C. and Alberta, starting several fires with lightning strikes. 15 fires were started in B.C. and one fire that started on Kenow mountain, close to the Alberta-B.C. border became a massive wildfire and threatened Waterton Lakes National Park.

The end of August and early September of 2017, 500 people were forced to evacuate Waterton townsite and the surrounding municipalities of Cardston and Pincher Creek. 30 per cent of the national park was burned, but thankfully due to the efforts of firefighters, fire response crews and equipment, the townsite was saved.

It had been the third driest summer in Waterton on record, with high temperatures and very little to no rain. The conditions were perfect for a wildfire, and there was a fire ban for Waterton and the surrounding municipalities.

"Our Fire Management Officer was looking at the lightning strike map on the computer and noticed there had been a strike there. Our Initial Attack Crew was up flying about an hour after that cell went over and looking to see if there's any strikes in the park or any sort of ignition. And they noticed the smoke column. So probably within an hour of the lightning strike, our crews had identified that there was an ignition, flew out there and at that point it was already five or six hectares in size and it was on a mountain," says Waterton's Parks Canada resource conservation manager, Dennis Madsen.

With the size of the fire and the difficult mountain terrain, the initial attack crew was unable to land and take action against the fire. They passed the information on to British Columbia and then continued to monitor the fire from the Waterton side of the border. Overnight the fire grew from 50 to 100 hectares in size.

By Sept. 2, the fire had made a seven kilometre run up to the Waterton park boundary and a 0.5 hectare spot fire started inside the boundary line.

Wildfire crews setting up sprinklers along the townsite perimeters, as the Kenow Wildfire continues to advance. Photo courtesy of Nick Alexander and Parks Canada.

Wildfire crews setting up sprinklers along the townsite perimeters, as the Kenow Wildfire continues to advance. Photo courtesy of Nick Alexander and Parks Canada.

Parks Canada staff, as well as fire crews from surrounding communities and municipalities, were making preparations in the townsite for the possible arrival of the fire hoping to protect buildings.

The province of Ontario and Alberta sent in fire crews. Over 180 firefighters came to help fight Kenow with the Parks Canada crews. The surrounding municipalities sent in crews, three ladder trucks and the Calgary Fire Department also came in to help with the blaze.

British Columbia was unable to send in crews, as they were overwhelmed with the amount of fires in their own province, including the 15 that started from the same lightning storm that started Kenow.

Parks Canada created a fire break in the 1990s, and was kept maintained by continually removing the trees in a swath around the perimeter of the townsite. Large pumps drew water from Waterton Lake and fire crews and Parks distributed it throughout the townsite with large hoses and sprinklers, wetting down the town as much as possible.

Residents were also informed about FireSmart and were asked to prepare their properties as best as they could. Dry and flammable materials were to be brought inside, such as patio furniture and firewood, and pine needles and branches were to be removed from the roofs of the houses. Sprinklers were encouraged to be used in the yards and on the houses.

On Sept. 5, residents and the townsite were put on an evacuation alert, and were told to be ready to leave with an hour’s notice if needed.

Azley Berezay with her son and great-grandfather Dee Barrus after evacuating their horses from Alpine Stables. The stables were lost in the fire, but the family plans to rebuild. Photo courtesy of Shootin' the Breeze.

Azley Berezay with her son and great-grandfather Dee Barrus after evacuating their horses from Alpine Stables. The stables were lost in the fire, but the family plans to rebuild. Photo courtesy of Shootin' the Breeze.

Azley Berezay, owner of Alpine Stables, was one of the many people deeply affected by the Kenow fire. Her family had to make arrangements to evacuate their horses.

“That was scary for us,” Berezay told Shootin’ the Breeze, a local newspaper.“Clearly we weren’t going to leave them there.”

The bison from the bison paddock were also moved, besides one lone bison who refused and found shelter in a pond. Residents living right outside the park boundaries in the M.D. of Pincher Creek were also making preparations for their livestock.

Berezay later told the newspaper that she wished Parks Canada didn’t “downplay how serious it was,” saying that “it seemed like the evacuation was just a precaution, and if we had known how serious it was, we would have taken a lot more stuff out.”

The town received an evacuation order on Sept. 8, leaving the wildfire responders behind to prepare for the fire.

The water tower on the Prince of Whales hill in Waterton Lakes National Park on the night of Sept. 11, 2017. Photo courtesy of Coaldale and District Emergency Services and Parks Canada.

The water tower on the Prince of Whales hill in Waterton Lakes National Park on the night of Sept. 11, 2017. Photo courtesy of Coaldale and District Emergency Services and Parks Canada.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Parks Canada staff knew that the Kenow fire was very likely to come into the park. There was already a 50-hectare spot fire burning within the boundary and although there was a natural fire break of rock on the side of a mountain, the fire was moving sideways through Akamina Pass.

The wind and the weather conditions were not favourable, and officials knew that when the fire broke through, it would have the wind right on its tail, pushing it rapidly into the park. Over the course of the day, as the sun warmed up, the fire merged into a wall several kilometres wide.

By 5 p.m. that afternoon, the fire rapidly moved through the park, igniting spot fires over one kilometre ahead of it. It reached the park entrance within five hours, and travelled over 25 kilometres that day.

The map of the Kenow Wildfire on Sept. 12, after the wildfire broke into Waterton Lakes National Park boundary the night of Sept. 11. Source: Shootin' the Breeze.

The map of the Kenow Wildfire on Sept. 12, after the wildfire broke into Waterton Lakes National Park boundary the night of Sept. 11. Source: Shootin' the Breeze.

The fire was too big and out of control to put out. That night, firefighters and Parks Canada protected the buildings, and the Calgary and Coaldale Fire Departments protected the iconic Prince of Wales hotel from big embers.

The visitor information centre, Alpine Stables, a couple of outer buildings and five surrounding ranches just outside the park gates were destroyed or damaged by the Kenow fire. People living in the surrounding municipalities were woken to mandatory evacuations in the middle of the night.

Berezay knew Parks Canada had many buildings they were trying to save but is sad to see her family business destroyed.

"It’s a huge part of our family. We have so many memories there ... it’s a tremendous loss," she said to Shootin' the Breeze.

The morning of Sept. 12, the weather suddenly changed. The winds did a 180-degree change of direction, the temperature dropped and the humidity levels rose. This prevented Kenow from advancing into the M.D. of Pincher Creek even further and allowed fire crews to start suppression efforts.

On Sept. 19, the fire was considered held, and the next day the evacuation order was lifted and residents were allowed to enter the park and return home. Kenow fire wasn’t considered officially out until spring 2018, as crews had to be sure all the hotspots were checked.

Impact

Source: Parks Canada.

David and Theresa Cassidy stood at what remained of their holiday home, which fell victim to the Kenow fire on Sept. 11. The landscape, once green and bright became nothing more then burnt remnants.

David and Theresa Cassidy in front of the remains of their cabin after the Kenow Wildfire. Photo courtesy of Shootin' the Breeze.

David and Theresa Cassidy in front of the remains of their cabin after the Kenow Wildfire. Photo courtesy of Shootin' the Breeze.

Yet despite all that they’ve been through, the pair were calm and relieved it was over.

“Nobody was hurt, right, that’s the important thing,” Theresa told Shootin’ the Breeze.

A year later, Waterton is visibly recovering and the wildlife and landscape are adapting to the post-fire conditions. The ecosystem scientist for Parks Canada in Waterton, Kim Pearson, says she has noticed many plants and animals adapting well over the past year and even some new species appearing in the park.

Kim Pearson talks about some of the ecological changes Waterton has seen in the past year.

Visitation in 2018 did see a decrease in numbers, however the park was still fairly busy. Visitation rates were steadily increasing over the years, and saw a spike the summer of 2017 for the Canada 150 celebrations. The visitor experience manager Locke Marshall explains that rates for 2018 were definitely lower than 2017, but matched the numbers from 2013, with people coming to the park out of curiosity to see the aftermath of Kenow Fire.

Many parts of the park, including the Red Rock Parkway, and most of the backcountry hiking was closed during the summer of 2018, which impacted tourism rates. However, Parks Canada staff have been amazed at how quickly the landscape and wildlife has recovered from Kenow and know Waterton Lakes National Park is in a period of renewal, not devastation.

“You know, as much as this seems like devastation for those of us who've been here a long time. It was sad in a way. I grew up here too. I just grew up outside the park. This is a huge change, but it's been really exciting to watch these changes that they're talking about because you just, you're just amazed by nature," says Marshall.

"I think that maybe one contributor to this strong a year of visitation, especially early in the year, is people who were kind of like us. I think they may have come thinking that they were here to see devastation. But then they started coming to see the changes and how exciting it was. I mean, the floral display this spring was just incredible. It was purple and yellow and white across the landscape. It was something to see, it really was."

In the summer of 2018, Waterton had a celebration thanking all the firefighters and crews that ultimately saved the townsite.

On August 23, 2018, almost a year after the start of Kenow fire, a fire started in Glacier National Park that bordered the Canada-U.S. border and Waterton Lakes National Park. This fire was called Boundary Fire, and placed Waterton yet again into an evacuation alert. Additional firefighting crews were called in and Parks coordinated extensively with their colleagues in the U.S.

A map showing the Boundary Fire in 2018 and the previous burn lines from Kenow. Photo courtesy of Shootin' the Breeze.

A map showing the Boundary Fire in 2018 and the previous burn lines from Kenow. Photo courtesy of Shootin' the Breeze.

The smoke from the fire affected air quality, and possibly people’s decisions to visit the park at the end of August.

About the Authors

Richie Nguyen initially didn't want to go in to journalism, only choosing it out of a lack of options. But after his first interview, he realized he had a keen interest in people and the stories that they were willing to share.

Shaunda Lamont has always enjoyed storytelling and this interest led her to journalism. Through this degree she has created a documentary and photography blog.

Arianna Korbett went into journalism after spending a year abroad in Croatia, where she found her passion for writing and storytelling. She hopes to continue travelling and sharing the stories that need to be told.