An out-of-control wildfire threatening Waterton Lakes National Park in southwestern Alberta has raged over the park boundaries, forcing hundreds of people to flee from nearby communities.
Jared Pierson, who lives nearby, drove to just outside the park gates on Monday night, saying he could feel the heat and hear the crackle of the fire.
“This is crazy. You can hear the fire roaring. We’re being rained down on by ash. You can feel the heat of the fire as the wind is blowing. You can feel the heat of the fire coming down the highway,” he said in a video he shot from the road.
“Since we’ve been here, looks like things are getting worse.”
“We got a lot more than we bargained for,” he told CBC News.
Up to 500 people forced to flee so far
About 450 to 500 people have been forced to leave southwestern Alberta so far, RCMP Cpl. Curtis Peters said Tuesday at about 9:30 a.m. MT.
Around 200 firefighters have been battling in Waterton for days against the Kenow fire, which started nearly two weeks ago after a lightning strike in the Flathead Valley in B.C.
Crews had been working all weekend as it burned across the border into the national park, trying to keep it from reaching the community of Waterton, which was evacuated Friday.
Waterton has a year-round population of only 105, according to the 2016 census, but its rugged mountain peaks and emerald lakes draw hundreds if not thousands of visitors a day in the summer months.
As Monday progressed, the fire spread to encroach on the Waterton townsite from two directions.
It was “firmly established” in the Cameron Valley along the Akamina Parkway and also burning in the Tamarack Basin area to the north of Cameron Valley, according to Parks Canada.
Then it surged over the park’s boundaries.
Multiple evacuation orders issued overnight
At first, only small sections of the highway outside the national park that were closed.
But as the evening progressed, the smoke thickened and more and more ash fell from the sky.
Just after 10 p.m. MT, the first of the evacuation orders was issued without warning for parts of the Municipal District of Pincher Creek.
The evacuation order did not include the town of Pincher Creek itself, which has a population of just over 3,600 people and lies about 45 km from the park’s boundary.
Throughout the night, the area under evacuation order continued to expand to include all residents south of Highway 505.
Riesah Prock and husband Herky Cutler live in Twin Butte, just north of Waterton Lakes, and says she was awoken at 2 a.m. on Tuesday by a knock on the door from RCMP.
“We saw flames from our house as we looked out and, of course, a great deal of smoke,” Prock told the Calgary Eyeopener. “For us to see flames from our house is remarkable. It had to be very close.”
Prock said she had been preparing for a possible evacuation all week, loading a “bug-out bag” with food, essentials and items that can’t be replaced.
After leaving Twin Butte, the couple headed to the relief centre in Pincher Creek, where Prock said she saw other evacuees carrying blankets, books and household items.
The couple is now in Calgary after dropping most of their valuables in a storage locker. Prock said she is happy to be in the city to “breathe some fresh air” after weeks of smokey conditions in the communities around Waterton Lakes.
“Yesterday it felt like someone had a barbecue and left a fire going in our living room,” said Prock.
Cardston County — which has a population of nearly 4,500 — declared a state of emergency shortly after 1 a.m. Tuesday, saying in an alert to residents: “Fire has left Waterton Park and has entered the county.”
People in the county are being evacuated in all areas between Waterton Lakes National Park and Range Road 281 (Highway 800), and from the U.S border north to Township Road 40.
Police go door to door to warn people
RCMP officers were going door to door with Parks Canada staff to alert residents they need to leave their homes.
Close to 4 a.m., residents of Canada’s largest reserve, the Blood Reserve, also began evacuating.
The reserve is divided into zones, and Zone 1 — the southernmost zone — is currently under evacuation order, while Zone 3 — just north of Zone 1 — has been put on notice.
“That fire spread quite rapidly,” said Oscar Cotton, the Blood Tribe emergency services director.
“A number of units of the local indigenous police force have been going door to door. They are confident at this point that everyone who was in potential danger has sought safety.”
No word yet on how much the fire spread
More than 185 firefighters, 14 aircraft and six firefighting vehicles had been deployed to the area.
A Parks Canada spokesperson told CBC News overnight that an update on the fire and how big it was now would not be available until later Tuesday morning.
As of Monday morning, before it surged through the park and over its boundaries, Parks Canada said it was 11,400 hectares in size — roughly the equivalent of that many football fields.
“Parks Canada is actively managing fire at various locations in the national park,” said Parks Canada area commander, Rick Kubian.
According to the latest update, the fire was advancing in the southwest corner and its northern flank was also being “aggressively” attacked by firefighters, Kubian said.
There is also a known offshoot fire of about 50 hectares in the central region of the park.
- All evacuees from the M.D. of Pincher Creek are advised to check in at the command centre set up at Vertical Church at 1200 Ken Thornton Blvd. or can check in remotely by calling 403-904-8016.
- In Cardston County, evacuees are being directed to the Civic Center at 67 3rd Avenue W. in the Town of Cardston, or to call them at 403-653-3366.
- Members of the Blood Reserve are being told that the multipurpose building in Standoff has been opened to receive evacuees. Evacuees from the reserve are being asked to register at the building even if they don’t intend to stay there. People who are still in the areas of the reserve that are under evacuation and who are unable to leave due to transportation concerns are asked to contact the Blood Tribe Police for assistance.