WATERTON VILLAGE, Alberta — As sheets of silver rain poured down on the Prince of Wales Hotel, clouds of brown-black dust rose up to meet them.
“There are times when it looks like we’re on fire all over again,” said Pat Morris, manager of the Waterton Glacier Suites hotel. A month after the Kenow fire nearly wiped the village off the map, residents still wait to learn how much of their park remains.
“When guests inquire, there’s very little we can give them as solid information," Morris said. "We know the village is open, but we don’t know what this winter will be like. That could extend into next season as well. We don’t know what summer’s going to look like.”
The Kenow fire scorched 19,300 hectares (47,700 acres) of Waterton Lakes National Park, mostly in one four-hour run on Sept. 11. Initial estimates put 50 percent of the park’s vegetated area in the burn zone. While burn-severity mapping may reduce that total, three-quarters of the park remains off-limits, probably through next spring.
Earlier this week, environmental analyst John Bergenske was in a small plane tracking bears on the British Columbia-Alberta border near the Kenow fire’s origin.
“I was totally shocked,” Bergenske said. “Cameron Lake — the forest is just gone around there. You can see the parking lot and nothing else. The Akamina Valley is gone, right up to Wall Lake. It somehow missed Forum Lake, but the rest of the drainage is pretty well cooked.”
After 10 days of burning just over the British Columbia border in Akamina-Kishnina Provincial Park, the fire crossed the Continental Divide and ripped into Waterton’s two main road corridors: the Akamina Parkway and Red Rock Parkway. It rode winds estimated between 40 mph and 80 mph. After blackening virtually everything below timberline, the flames aimed straight at Waterton Township.
If luck is the residue of design, the little village at the edge of Waterton Lake had sufficient amounts of both. Incident commanders had already seen Kenow make a 3-mile run on Sept. 2 that put it on the Waterton park border.
“In terms of fire danger rating, we were at the extreme end of extreme,” Waterton Resource Conservation Manager Dennis Madsen said. “We put out the evacuation alert on Tuesday (Sept. 5) so folks had a chance to prepare. Because we knew we would not be able to stop it if it decides to run.”
Authorities gave the evacuation order on Friday and braced for impact. Volunteer firefighters from throughout southern Alberta assembled in the town, backed up by three structure fire engine companies from Calgary.
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Most of Waterton Township’s private cottages occupy five small blocks between Bertha Peak and the lakeshore. A fringe of aspen and birch trees 40 feet wide belts the base of the mountain and its evergreen forests. With two huge pumps drawing water from the lake, firefighters laid a line of sprinklers along the aspen to soak the homes. A separate team took position around the Prince of Wales Hotel, vowing to defend the 90-year-old, seven-story landmark with hoses and foam.
The Akamina Parkway runs about 6 miles northeast from Cameron Lake, and then makes a hard turn southeast for the last three miles until it tumbles into the village. Long before the actual fire reached Waterton, windborne clouds of flaming embers shot out of the canyon. There they caught the north wind blowing up Waterton Lake straight at the hotel promontory.
The defenses held.
Embers caught the grass just north of the Prince of Wales’ parking lot. There it spread so fast it killed a fox just 10 feet from its starting point, leaving a little pile of burned and brittle bones. Then it ran 2 more miles across the open meadows to join with another flame front blasting out of the Red Rock Parkway corridor. Along the way, it burned the Parks Canada visitor center down to its cement foundation and blew up the jet fuel depot at the park headquarters compound.
Park personnel had earlier evacuated nine of the 10 wild bison in Waterton’s Bison Paddock on its northeast edge, sending them to Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park. But one old bull refused the ride, and rode out the fire in a pond. He emerged unscathed.
“There were bears in town wandering around,” Waterton Glacier Suites employee Alexa Koskewich said. “It was wet and it wasn’t burning — where else are they going to go?”
Along the entrance road north of town, diagonal black scars shine in the ashy hillside. Parks Canada spokesman John Stoesser explained they were the melted remains of plastic walls used to guide Waterton’s salamanders to roadway underpasses.
Out at the Bison Paddock, Stoesser surveyed the denuded meadows. Brown-black clouds of dust swirled past and stung the eyes.
“We don’t get sand dunes like that,” he said, pointing to ripples in the ground. “That’s ash piling up.”