Calgary firefighters 'showered with embers' fought to save historic Prince of Wales Hotel from wildfire

A team of about 50 Calgary firefighters, in rotating groups, was sent to the national park to protect the hamlet of Waterton as the wildfire approached. Crews from a number of other municipalities including Lethbridge and Taber were also called upon.

Firefighters engaged in 31-hour battle to save buildings in townsite

A Calgary fire truck is parked in front of the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park on Saturday morning.

Amid the wildfire in Waterton Lakes National Park, Calgary firefighters worked to protect the buildings in the townsite nestled in the mountains of the park. 

With flames encroaching, a rain of embers came all the way to the doorstep of the historic Prince of Wales Hotel. 

"It was the most intense fire I've ever been involved with, and I was never at that point where I thought we would lose it," said Calgary fire district Chief Jeff Primrose on Thursday. "Not even for a second."

A team of about 50 Calgary firefighters, in rotating groups, was sent to the national park to protect structural assets in the hamlet of Waterton as the wildfire approached. Crews from a number of other municipalities including Lethbridge and Taber were also called upon. 

Calgary's team returned home Wednesday as the risk to the town site declined. Twenty-four firefighters from the Taber, Lethbridge, Coaldale and Cardston County fire departments remain in the Waterton townsite, according to Parks Canada. 

The building of most concern was the Prince of Wales Hotel, which was designated a national historic site in 1992. The hotel, built to emulate a Swiss chalet, was constructed in 1926 and 1927 and is known for the iconic view of it perched over Waterton Lake.

The Waterton Lakes National Park visitor's centre is pictured before and after it was ravaged by the raging Kenow wildfire. (Left: Bryan Labby; Right: Wes Dewsbery)

There was no damage to the hotel even as the slopes around it burned. There was damage to some other infrastructure in the park including the visitor's centre.

A heated 31-hour battle

Primrose said the teams of firefighters had enough time to prepare a perimeter and overland water supply systems to protect the hotel, as well as the majority of the other buildings. 

The team started work Monday morning at 8 a.m. MT and continued hard for the next 31 hours. From 9 p.m. Monday until 5 a.m. the next morning, there wasn't time to take a break as the fired rolled up within about a hundred metres of the hotel. 

"The embers were rolling up on the porch of the hotel," Primrose said. "We did get showered with embers, right up to the hotel."

The Kenow fire quadrupled in size in a period of two days earlier this week. It is still estimated to be roughly 36,000 hectares as of Thursday evening, but rain and cooler weather have given firefighters a break. 

Primrose gives full credit of the success to the team he had with him, as well as the other fire crews from other municipalities, a sentiment echoed by Calgary's Deputy Fire Chief Allan Ball. 

"I'm incredibly proud of Calgary firefighters," Ball said.

"They went down there with the commitment they were going to protect those assets, they did that."