How the Waterton Lakes wildfire took a toll on park staff
'This was a traumatic, stressful event for some of the staff involved'
The pain would have been excruciating for two female black bears found in Waterton Lakes National Park after the Kenow Mountain wildfire tore through the rugged mountain landscape last September.
One was found lying on its back with severe third-degree burns on the bottoms of all four feet. The other was barely able to walk, apparently blind and had its ears completely singed off.
A wildlife health report obtained by The Canadian Press says putting the animals down was the only humane option and describes how Waterton staff shot them before Parks Canada's wildlife unit arrived.
"This was a traumatic, stressful event for some of the staff involved and assistance by mental health professionals may be required in future to help with the psychological trauma resulting from these interventions," says the report.
The document was one of several obtained under the Access to Information Act that highlighted the trying circumstances Parks Canada staffers faced as they contended with a disaster the agency described in one analysis as unprecedented in its severity and impact.
On Aug. 30, a lightning strike sparked a fire in British Columbia's Flathead Valley, which spread toward the boundary with Alberta under hot, dry conditions. Waterton was evacuated on Sept. 8, as the fire was poised to spread into the southwestern Alberta park.
The day before the evacuation, Pat Thomsen, executive director of Pacific Mountain and National Parks, wrote to the national office concerned Waterton employees would not qualify for travel status in the event they would have to live temporarily in Pincher Creek, 55 kilometres away.
Travel status enables employees to be reimbursed for costs such as transportation, accommodation and meals.
"This is not a helpful nor compassionate answer, and needs to be reconsidered," Thomsen wrote. "Your intervention is requested ASAP."
Parks Canada said in an emailed statement that employees who lived within park boundaries, were forced out between Sept. 8 and Sept. 21 and were still required to work were given travel status, consistent with the agency's travel policy.
The fire jumped into the park three days after the evacuation and then spread onto adjacent grassland, prompting evacuation orders in nearby communities.
Notes for a phone call between Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick and Waterton superintendent Ifan Thomas recounted how just as Waterton staff were assisting with those evacuations, one Parks Canada employee learned his house had burned.
"Despite his personal situation, this employee continued to conduct the evacuation with the RCMP during the night and returned to work at 5 a.m. the next morning."
The park's visitor centre and other buildings were lost but the townsite was spared — an outcome top brass at Parks Canada credited to the staff who installed firefighting sprinklers, removed combustible material and made other preparations as the fire approached.
"As the area commander and field unit superintendent both affirmed, if it had not been for your prevention efforts, it is clear that the Waterton Lakes townsite would have been lost," Parks Canada CEO Daniel Watson wrote in a Sept. 15 letter thanking employees.
He commended them for standing "generously, compassionately and resolutely in the face of the catastrophic," regardless of lack of sleep or having lost homes in the fire.
Watson acknowledged the emotional toll the fire may take and committed that the agency would do whatever it could to offer support.
"We recognize that many of you have suffered personal loss or may have had to watch others suffer catastrophic loss … Some days we are a team. Today we are a family."
Parks Canada said immediately after the fire, the agency provided mental health support to all its personnel, as well as staff from assisting agencies and contractors. All were invited to group counselling sessions and counsellors were also made available one-on-one.
"Materials and information on mental health and wellness has been provided to supervisors of Parks Canada staff who were involved in the Kenow wildfire, so that they can help direct staff seeking assistance related to managing stress, mental health, or wellness concerns."