First Nation members evacuated as Kenow wildfire grows by 50 per cent

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017 5:38pm


Image Caption

From the website of the Blood Tribe in Alberta

By Shari Narine
Windspeaker Contributor


At 5 a.m. this morning, about 100 members residing in the southwest corner of the Blood Reserve were roused from their beds and ordered to evacuate as the Waterton Park fire spread easterly due to an ember that caused a grass fire at the gates.

The Blood Reserve, along with the Municipal District of Pincher Creek and Cardston County, evacuated community members in the line of the blaze. Cardston County and the M.D. of Pincher Creek have also declared local states of emergency.

Bernie Schmitte, forestry manager with Alberta Agriculture, said the grassfire was reported by the M.D. of Pincher Creek around 9:30 last night. Containment efforts proved unsuccessful with the fire on both sides of Highway 6.

Blood Reserve evacuees sought shelter in Stand Off, Alta. at the multipurpose building. Provincial officials and the Red Cross are coordinating with the Blood Reserve centre and the emergency evacuation centres in Pincher Creek and Cardston to ensure support for evacuees.

Residents of about 150 homes in another area of the reserve, further away from the fire, were told to be prepared to leave on short notice, Blood Tribe fire chief Oscar Cotton told Canadian Press.

Cotton also noted the “massive amount of smoke” as a problem.

The Kenow wildfire grew by almost 50 per cent in size overnight to 20,000 hectares, but it was a spark from that fire yesterday evening which ignited dry grass at the park’s gate compounded by strong easterly blowing winds that forced the evacuation beyond the townsite of Waterton. Waterton was evacuated on Sept. 9 and gates to the park closed before then.

The Kenow wildfire started nearly two weeks ago after a lightning strike in the Flathead Valley just on the other side of the border with British Columbia. The fire has been fought through the integrated efforts of the National Parks Service, province and local municipalities.

In a press conference early this afternoon, Premier Rachel Notley said that 500 people were now under evacuation notice.

“It’s a very scary thing to be told you must leave your home in the middle of the night. And I know that those affected by the evacuations and those who have loved ones fighting on the frontlines today are worried,” said Notley.

“Additional evacuation notices may be necessary as the situation develops,” she said.

In Waterton townsite, approximately 45 structural firefighters from neighbouring municipalities, including Calgary, are working to protect structures within the perimeter of the town. However, some structures outside the perimeter, including the Visitors Centre, have been lost.

Within the park itself, there are approximately 135 firefighters, nine air tankers and 14 helicopters. Alberta Forestry has an additional 125 firefighters and 23 helicopters on standby waiting for direction from the incident command team.

Notley said the Keyno fire is being tackled by a unified command, which comprises Parks Canada, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry wildfire section, Emergency Management Alberta, and with the assistance of emergency officials from nearby municipalities. She was unclear as to whether the Blood Reserve had a member on that team at the moment.

“Certainly we are coordinating with them as their community becomes increasingly impacted and we’ve asked our provincial operations centre to ensure that all the effected municipalities and/or communities are integrated into the team. Now, obviously, that the Blood Tribe has been impacted by evacuation, if they don’t have someone on that team now, they will very quickly,” said Notley.

Schmitte said that earlier this morning light winds allowed airtanker operations to be successful so far. However, strong gusty winds are forecasted for the afternoon with the temperature expected to be at 26 degrees Celsius and relative humidity low.

“This will challenge firefighters through the day,” he said.