'The landscape has changed': Residents return as Waterton Lakes National Park reopens to the public

Residents in Waterton Lakes National Park returned to an intact townsite but a changed landscape more than a week after a raging wildfire in southwestern Alberta forced an evacuation of the park.

Park had been closed since Sept. 8 when Kenow wildfire forced evacuation of the area

Return to Waterton Park

5 years ago
Duration 0:46
Public allowed back in on Wednesday

Residents in Waterton Lakes National Park returned to an intact townsite but a changed landscape more than a week after a raging wildfire in southwestern Alberta forced an evacuation of the park.

Parts of the park reopened to the public Wednesday afternoon. The Kenow wildfire had forced a mandatory evacuation order on Sept. 8 for Waterton, which is 270 kilometres south of Calgary.

Parks Canada information officer Natalie Faye said that for safety reasons access is permitted only along the entrance road into the community and the townsite itself.

A helicopter takes off as part of firefighting efforts in Waterton Lakes National Park last September. The park is once again on an evacuation alert due to wildfires. (Dan Rafla/Parks Canada)

As far as trails in the area, the townsite loop is open, but outlying trails will remain closed for the time being as there is still an active fire being managed in the area.

"People will see as they do arrive in the park, the landscape has changed," she said. "The park was heavily impacted, about 30 per cent of Waterton Lakes National Park, but there is still life on the landscape."

Increased wildlife in townsite

Locals were allowed back into the townsite at 10 a.m. Wednesday to check their property for fire damage. It was the first time residents were allowed back into the townsite since the evacuation.

Residents who had feared the worst were happy to find the townsite intact.

"Yesterday morning I expected that the stores and homes would be full of smoke and ash. And none of it — nothing," said Darlene Hoglund, who runs Evergreen Gifts in the Waterton townsite.

"Everything was wonderful. We were very, very glad."

Waterton Lakes National Park in southwestern Alberta has been closed since Sept. 8 due to the Kenow wildfire. (Genevieve Normand/Radio-Canada)

Hoglund said things in Waterton are getting "back to normal, back to business," thanks to the efforts of emergency crews who worked to keep the townsite safe from the wildfire.

"I don't know how we could even thank them enough for what they've done for this little town," she said.

Part of getting back to normal in Waterton is getting back to nature. Hogland said she was worried about the welfare of the animals in the park, especially a small black bear named Charlie.

After the fire and evacuation, Waterton resident Darlene Hoglund said she was glad to see Charlie the bear, who Hoglund said loves walking on the tops of fences in the Waterton townsite.

Hoglund said Charlie has been showing up in the townsite for some time now, walking around on neighbourhood fences and taking naps in backyards.

She said she was happy to see the young bear back to his old tricks, bringing his balancing act back to Waterton.

"The other bears don't come around like that," Hoglund said.

Faye said wildlife that escaped the path of the fire are returning to the area, and Parks Canada has seen an increased amount of wildlife in the townsite.

"Wildlife displaced by the fire may be acting erratically, differently. They have also been stressed and impacted by this," she said.

Smoke billows in Waterton Lakes National Park on the morning of Sept. 12, 2017, behind the historic Prince of Wales Hotel, after the Kenow wildfire reached the townsite of Waterton overnight. (Wes Dewsbery)

On Tuesday, Waterton Lakes townsite evacuees returned to the area for the first time to find the wildfire had spared the townsite's buildings. 

Faye said it is up to local businesses whether they want to reopen their doors to the public at this time.

The national park is home to about 105 year-round residents and draws thousands of visitors annually.

Fire now classified as 'being held'

Jed Cochrane, one of three fire incident commanders in Waterton, said the Kenow wildfire was most likely started by lightning in B.C.'s Flathead Valley on Aug. 30.

When the fire began, it was only about six hectares in size, Cochrane said. Within a day, the blaze had already grown to 100 hectares, and two weeks later it was more than 38,000 hectares.

Waterton Lakes National Park is located in the southwest corner of Alberta and borders Glacier National Park in Montana. (Parks Canada)

According to Parks Canada, the fire is now classified as being held — no longer growing in size but still burning in spots.

The Chief Mountain border crossing southeast of the park has reopened after the wildfire forced a closure.

Last week, Foothills MP John Barlow said in a Facebook live video it appeared the fire damaged about 30 per cent of the park, and about 70 per cent of the forest was burned.

Members of the media toured the Waterton townsite Wednesday afternoon for the first time since the area was evacuated. 

With files from Colleen Underwood