Déjà vu for Waterton residents as huge U.S. wildfire threatens park

People in Waterton Lakes National Park in southwestern Alberta have an unpleasant jolt of déjà vu after being put on evacuation alert due to a huge wildfire raging out of control just south of the border — almost exactly a year after a devastating blaze swept through much of the park.

Wildfire started in Boundary Creek valley south of Waterton in Montana's Glacier National Park

A helicopter carries a Parks Canada crew in the direction of a wildfire threatening Waterton Lakes National Park on Friday. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

People in Waterton Lakes National Park in southwestern Alberta have an unpleasant jolt of déjà vu after being put on evacuation alert due to a huge wildfire raging out of control just south of the border — almost exactly a year after a devastating blaze swept through much of the park.

Parks Canada issued the alert for all areas of the park on Friday as a 700-hectare wildfire in Montana burned to the border, within about five kilometres of the Waterton townsite, and threatened to roar even further north.

As of Friday evening, shifting winds and firefighters' efforts had pushed the fire back to seven kilometres from the townsite.

The fast-moving fire started in the Boundary Creek valley south of Waterton in the Glacier National Park, said Parks Canada fire information officer John Stoesser. 

Crews load up a helicopter to fight a wildfire encroaching on the boundary of Waterton National Park. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

Jeanne Aldrich, who runs the Northland Lodge in Waterton, told the Calgary Eyeopener she had to wake up her guests and tell them about the evacuation alert after Parks Canada officials notified her late Thursday night.

"Some of them were here last year, so it's kind of like PTSD for everyone around here from last year's evacuation," she said. "We're feeling very on alert. I don't know if anyone got any sleep last night."

Stoesser said the decision to call an evacuation alert was taken in view of the potential danger to life and health.

"Because of the wildfire that's burning in the Boundary Creek valley, in Glacier National Park, it was moving east toward upper Waterton Lakes. So that's a trigger point to put the townsite of Waterton under an evacuation alert, since it is relatively close to the townsite," Stoesser said.

On an average Friday, there are about 5,000 people in the park including visitors, staff and residents, Stoesser said.

"People are getting ready. They've gone through this before."

John Stoesser is a fire information officer with Parks Canada. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

Winds had shifted to the north by late Friday morning, Stoesser said, slightly lessening the risk to the townsite, and the potential for rain on the forecast could also help. 

The fire was spotted early Thursday evening and quickly grew from about 20 hectares to 100 hectares within an hour, and to 700 hectares by Friday morning, Parks Canada said in a release.

Gusting winds and low-lying smoke prevented aerial crews from dropping water on the fire Friday, the agency said.

The U.S. Glacier National Park Air Attack Team assessed the fire and determined that suppression would not be successful in the current windy conditions.

"Parks Canada will continue to work closely with Glacier National Park to assess options for suppression and containment," officials said. 

"Parks Canada has deployed two helicopters and an attack team that will be used Friday to slow the spread of fire eastward toward Waterton Lake, as conditions permit," Parks Canada said. 

The alert means residents and visitors need to prepare themselves and their property for a possible evacuation.

All backcountry campsites and hiking trails closed

Officials say they will try to give as much notice as possible if that happens, but because conditions can change quickly, an order to leave could come on short notice.

People will be required to leave within one hour if an evacuation is ordered.

Parks Canada also ordered the entirety of the park, including backcountry campsites and hiking trails, closed. Staff swept through to evacuate those areas Thursday night.

The townsite, Highways 5 and 6 and Chief Mountain Highway remained open.

The evacuation alert comes almost a year after a massive wildfire burned through large swaths of Waterton Lakes National Park.

In September 2017, the Kenow wildfire consumed more than 190 square kilometres within the park — an area twice the size of Grande Prairie comprising 38 per cent of the park. About 80 per cent of the park's popular hiking trails were impacted. 

Five homes outside of the park were also destroyed. The park was under a mandatory evacuation order that lasted two weeks.

"We were shocked it could be happening again," said Christie Low, who lives with her husband Max and 13-month-old son in the town. "We expected from the scope of last year's fire that we were completely safe from wildfires this year."

She described last year's fire as devastating, and said she feels like even though the fire is currently in Glacier National Park, it's still too close for comfort.

"If it's being burned, even if it isn't technically Waterton, it still feels like it's our home and it's sad to see how we can be kicked while we're down," she said.

Waterton resident Christie Low said she was shocked to hear a wildfire was once again encroaching on the national park. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

She said last year's experience taught her that she didn't need to get a bunch of material possessions ready to go in case an evacuation is ordered this time around.

"After last year we realized the thing that's most important is our family and that we're safe," she said.

Max Low is a co-owner of two local businesses, Weiners of Waterton and Waffleton.

A wildfire burning out of control south of Waterton Lakes National Park prompted an evacuation alert late Thursday night. Awayward took this picture from Bertha trail just before it was closed to hikers. (@awayward_)

He said it's been a challenge for business having the horizon clouded by wildfire smoke with the tourism season coming to a close.

"It has been tough. There's only so much we can do," he said.

But, he says he wouldn't give up living and working in the town for anything.

"There's something special about Waterton that keeps me here," he said.

Kevin Hicks, general manager of Waymarker Hospitality, which operates three hotels in the park, says people seem to be a little scared.

'Hard hit' on businesses

"People are wondering what's going to happen," he said, estimating the three hotels currently have about 300 guests.

"It's kind of disappointing, after what we had last year," Hicks said, adding that some guests are choosing to leave early or cancel upcoming bookings. "It's a hard hit on the industry, for sure."

Over at the Northland Lodge, Aldrich was optimistic an evacuation wouldn't be ordered, but she says hotel staff are ready if necessary.

"We'll get the original china that we have that's been here since 1930, put it in a laundry basket, wrap it in towels, put it in the car and we'll go," she said.

With files from Anis Heydari