Expecting the worst, evacuees returning to the Waterton Lakes National Park townsite Tuesday say they were pleasantly surprised to find buildings untouched by smoke and flames from the Kenow wildfire, which ravaged southwestern Alberta.
"Very happy and pleased," said Ross Uibel, who owns an ice cream shop, a clothing store and a motel in the town about 270 kilometres south of Calgary.
"In our buildings there's no smoke smell, there's no soot, there's no ash. Everything is fine. The fire came right to the town … but the town is wonderful, just can't believe there's not more damage."
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The Kenow wildfire forced a mandatory evacuation order on Sept. 8 for the popular national park, which is home to about 105 residents year-round and draws tens of thousands of visitors annually.
The townsite was spared thanks to the efforts of firefighters from several towns and cities across southern Alberta, but the park itself did suffer significant damage.
"As residents head back to Waterton today, they're certainly going to see a changed landscape," Natalie Fay, the emergency management information officer for the Kenow wildfire, told the Calgary Eyeopener on Tuesday.
Power and water have been restored to the townsite but there could be periodic disruptions.
Sparked by lightning in the Flathead Valley of B.C. nearly two weeks ago, the wildfire grew to about 36,000 hectares at its height, forcing a total of about 500 people to flee from the park and parts of the M.D. of Pincher Creek, Cardston County and the Blood Tribe.
Some of the damage in Waterton is already known. Alpine Stables, a trail-riding business that operated in the park for nearly 50 years, was destroyed; however, about 40 horses were safely removed before the flames hit.
Parks Canada also earlier released details on other buildings damaged:
The East Gate Warden Station sustained a total loss of the structure, equipment and vehicles.
Crandell Campground was significantly affected.
The Bison Paddock was damaged.
The exterior of the Waterton Lakes Golf Course clubhouse sustained minor damage.
Transmission lines from the park boundary to the townsite sustained significant damage.
In a Facebook live video made last week following a helicopter tour, Foothills MP John Barlow said it appeared about 30 per cent of the park was damaged and about 70 per cent of the trees burned.
The park continues to be off-limits to the public, and a media tour is planned for Wednesday.
Uibel said he plans to reopen his gift shop and partially reopen his ice cream shop as he was told by Parks Canada the public should be allowed back in by this weekend.
"There will be a lot of people wanting to come and look and see the damage," he said.
Some business owners have been hard hit by the fire in terms of lost revenue, including Uibel.
"I've refunded over $35,000 ... it's been a very expensive September," he said. "We had to refund the people that had reservations, then not only that, the reservation money is just for holding it for one day, then there's all the other loss of revenue if they would stay for three or four days. That's all gone."
The other evacuation orders have since been lifted.
Whether hotels, restaurants and other businesses in the townsite reopen this year will be up to them, said Fay.
"I know at this time of year, normally at Waterton, things start to ramp down for businesses," she said, adding a plan for reopening the park to the public is being formed "in the coming days."
The fire is now classified as "held," meaning it is no longer growing but it is still burning in spots.
"There are still pockets around the perimeter and elsewhere in the park," said Fay.
"People may still see smoke puff up from time-to-time. We are still working on those locations but people in the townsite need not worry."
Wildlife has also begun returning.
"We are seeing life on the landscape," said Fay. "I've seen some very beautiful bull elk roaming around, lots of deer in the townsite, we are seeing bears in the townsite. In some of the more outlying areas of the park, wildlife was impacted, but there is still life."
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With files from the Calgary Eyeopener
An earlier version of this story said Waterton residents were only being allowed back for a few hours on Tuesday. In fact, they're now allowed to stay in Waterton townsite.Sep 19, 2017 1:52 PM MT