Friday, 14 September 2018 05:58

Waterton hurt by the fires geographically and financially

Written by  Heather Cameron
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The 2017 Kenow wildfire and the 2018 Montana fire impacted Waterton Lakes National Park on a number of fronts.


John Stoesser, the Partnering, Engagement and Communications Officer in the Waterton Lakes Field Unit for Parks Canada, explains the Kenow Wildfire of 2017 was 35,010 hectares in size. It burned 19,303 hectares within Waterton Lakes National Park. Approximately 38 % per cent of the park was burned by the wildfire, including approximately 50% of the park’s vegetated area.
“Extensive fire protection measures were effective in safeguarding the majority of infrastructure and facilities within the Waterton townsite and at the Prince of Wales hotel,” Stosser said. “Firefighters worked throughout the night to extinguish spot fires, monitor sprinkler protection, and protect facilities. High volume pumps and sprinkler systems, in combination with planning and fuel management done in previous years, ensured the townsite perimeter held.”
In terms of vegetation recovery from the Kenow Wildfire, Stoesser describes it as ecological renewal and says that the landscape has evolved with fire.
Before the Kenow Wildfire, Stoesser says that forests reflected conditions from when they were established following the last stand-replacing fire.
“Grasslands and areas at lower elevations grew back in the spring and summer,” Stoesser said. “Some burned areas were already sprouting green shoots last fall. Coniferous forests are expected take a much longer time to regenerate. Tiny lodgepole pine seedlings an inch or two tall have sprouted at higher elevations. Aspen forests will likely be somewhere in between, with young trees over a metre tall already reported. A complete understanding of the impact of this fire on the park’s ecology will take many years to observe and assess.”
Stoesser explains Parks Canada officials expect vegetation groups to establish that reflect the current conditions such as climate, soils and grazing wildlife. Vegetation distribution may be altered; grassland meadows may take the place of forests in some areas, and vice versa.
“We have the opportunity to observe the fascinating beginnings of the vegetation communities that establish,” Stoesser said. “The weather (wet or dry conditions) will affect how the landscape renews and adapts.”
Shameer Suleman, the head of the Waterton Chamber of Commerce, notes the economic impact being down around 25 to 40% in May and June due to the Kenow wildifire and the Boundary fire.
“The reason it was so far down is unfortunately there just wasn't anything open,” Suleman says. “Parks Canada, however, worked very hard and they were able to get a lot of trails open. Then, they ended up opening Red Rock Canyon to non-motorized vehicles as well as hiking. That was great; it was a huge boost for us.”
The Waterton Visitors’ Center was also lost in the Kenow fire, but Suleman speculates that it will be rebuilt and ready for next year. The stables were also lost, but a temporary building was used to keep them running.
“We also had new businesses in the park that that opened up, so we were very optimistic and although it was a sluggish start, it ended up picking up quite well in July and early August,” Suleman says. “Then, we got hit with heavy smoke, which obviously hampers travel, and that's a huge chunk of our business.”
“This year's fire was in Boundary Creek, Montana, and even though we were in no immediate danger, Parks Canada did have to call an evacuation alert,” Suleman adds.
“Most hotels in the area dropped down from 100% occupancy down to about 50%. It was a huge economic impact for all the hotels and all the businesses in Waterton; it was quite devastating.”

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