Firefighters battling southwestern Alberta blaze top of mind at Calgary memorial

The safety of Calgary firefighters battling an out-of-control blaze in southwestern Alberta was top of mind at a memorial for the fallen on Tuesday.

'They never know what their next call might bring,' Calgary fire chief says

A bell rang once for each fallen firefighter in Calgary on Tuesday at a memorial ceremony. (Julie Debeljak/CBC)

The safety of firefighters battling an out-of-control blaze in southwestern Alberta was top of mind at a memorial for the fallen in Calgary on Tuesday.

"I'd made it very clear to our crews going down there, although those structures are valuable, none of them was as valuable as any one of our people," Calgary Fire Chief Steve Dongworth told reporters at the ceremony.

More than 50 Calgary firefighters have rotated through fighting the Kenow wildfire that's torn through the Waterton Lake National Park and parts of the townsite, displacing hundreds of people.

Monday night, the team put in more than 24 hours straight in an intense battle. The fire threatened the historic Prince of Wales Hotel the Calgary team was tasked with protecting.

Smoke billows in Waterton Lakes National Park Tuesday morning behind the historic Prince of Wales Hotel after the Kenow wildfire reached the townsite of Waterton overnight. (Wes Dewsbery)

Bells rang for each fallen firefighter at the ceremony held outside the Calgary's City Hall in the Police Officers and Firefighters Tribute Plaza.

Forty-three have died in Calgary since 1923. More than two-thirds of them died from firefighting-related cancer.

"Our thoughts are very much with them, as they are with the crews we have working today," Dongworth said.

"I guess they never know what their next call might bring and what hazards that might bring, emotionally and physically."

Fire Chief Steve Dongworth says he told his firefighters that no building is worth saving if someone loses their life. (Julie Debeljak/CBC)

No firefighters have died or been injured during this ongoing wildfire situation, he said, but their work has been taxing.

"There's a crew of 17 very tired firefighters on their way back to Calgary this morning," Dongworth said.

The worry Monday night, when the fire turned for the worse, was that bits of wood from the hotel would turn into embers, Dongworth said. Those can grow to the size of baseballs and spread the fire.

The Prince of Wales, built in 1926-27, has a timber frame with peaked roofs and balconies.

A Calgary fire truck sits in front of the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park on Saturday morning. The area, including the townsite, was evacuated Friday afternoon due to the nearby Kenow wildfire.

Some vegetation around the hotel burned, but the hotel survived.

"Watching the fire coming down the valley at some pace would have been pretty intimidating, to say the least," he said.

"When the fire did arrive, it was very close and certainly would have been lots of heat, lots of smoke and lots of embers."

The department is prepared to continue rotating crews of 17 through the Kenow fire, and to dedicate more resources if Parks Canada asks, Dongworth said.

Typically, Calgary firefighters have been putting in 14-hour days on a three-day rotation during this wildfire.

With files from Julie Debeljak