Wildfire burns through Grasslands National Park

Officials say a large fire that burned through hectares of land at the Grasslands National Park is contained and under control Sunday afternoon, but fire crews are still on a high alert.

Officials say a large fire that burned through hectares of land at the Grasslands National Park is contained and under control Sunday evening, but fire crews are still on a high alert.

On Sunday evening there were still about 40 to 50 people surrounding the perimeter of the fire, monitoring hot spots. About 200 people battled the fire over the weekend.

The flames were reported at about noon Saturday southwest of Val Marie, Sask, and quickly spread to the park, which is about 165 kilometres southeast of Swift Current.

Katherine Patterson, the Superintendent for Parks Canada for southern Saskatchewan, said by the time crews arrived on scene the fire had already jumped a highway and several roads.

"Within probably the first four hours the fire had travelled about 10 kilometres and then later on that evening another seven or eight," said Patterson.

"So by the time we actually contained it early this [Sunday] morning it had travelled about 20 kilometres long in a swath that was between one and four kilometres wide," she told CBC news.

Heavy winds hurt fire containment efforts

Patterson said high winds gusting up to 80 kilometres per hour combined with dry conditions made it dangerous for people battling the flames.

"I went down on the fire line at one point, just to do some simple jobs, switching out radio batteries and things and I saw the fire breach the road and a fire guard and just literally spill 80 feet across the road and some flames that were anywhere from 30 feet to approaching 100 feet in the air," she said.

"Most people said they had never in 20, 30, 50 years, said they had never fought or seen a fire like that before."

More than 150 people fought the fire at a number of different locations. Volunteers from neighbouring communities and Hutterite colonies brought tractors and trucks with mounted water tanks. 

The province also contributed workers and resources, and Parks Canada brought in staff from Banff, Prince Albert, Lake Louise and Jasper.

Some people used graders to cut swaths of soil into the grass to create wind breaks. Their main priorities were to protect homes, farm buildings, stacks of feed bales, and park resources such as its campground and bison-handling facilities. 

"The campground in particular the fire just skirted, literally like a donut on both sides of it," said Patterson. "We'll have to get through in the light of day and assess more, but we don't think there's been very much damage to infrastructure so far."

However, a number of heritage buildings in the park did burn down.

"I wouldn't say they're nationally recognized historic buildings, but things with local sentimental value and things that we might have been wanting to develop further for some visitor experiences," said Patterson.

Though officials are still focusing on assessing the structural damage, Patterson said the land in the park should rejuvenate fairly quickly, with much of the grass growing back in about three weeks.