Fire crews continue to battle an out-of-control wildfire in Kootenay National Park, working hard to keep the fire out of the Bow Valley and to protect backcountry businesses and public facilities.
The lightning-sparked Verdant Creek fire has also prompted an outright fire ban in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks, including the Banff townsite, to try to prevent the potential of any new fires starting in these extreme conditions.
Winds of up to 70-km/h on Sunday pushed the 100-150 hectare fire to the east and north. It jumped into Simpson Pass and started to move closer to Sunshine Village ski resort. The blaze is now approximately 2,500 to 3,000 hectares in size.
The fire is still about 2.5-km away from Sunshine on the other side of the Continental Divide and hasn’t yet crossed into Banff. The most active flanks are in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, where the fire grew due to dry and windy conditions on Wednesday (July 19).
Parks Canada fire officials acknowledged the anxiety among locals, given devastating fires burning across Western Canada and the at times apocalyptic-looking smoky sky.
But, they said they want to assure the communities of Banff, Canmore, Harvie Heights and Lake Louise that they are actively fighting to put out the fire, still considered out-of-control.
“There’s no direct threat into the Bow Valley at this time,” said Jane Park, Parks Canada’s incident commander for the Verdant Creek fire, noting they are working on long-term plans should the fire turn towards Healy Pass.
“We’re trying to contain it to the Simpson area so it does not move towards the Bow Valley. It is across a mountain range and a couple of valleys away from the Bow Valley at this time,” she added.
To allay any fears, Park is making it clear to residents and visitors there is no talk of evacuations at this time.
“We’re far away from that,” she said. “Obviously a lot can change and the weather can change a lot of that. We do have trigger points identified in terms of evacuations and notices.”
As the crow flies, the fire is currently approximately 24 kilometres from the Town of Banff, 29 kilometres from Harvie Heights, and 31 kilometres from Canmore.
With the fire just 2.5 kilometres away from Sunshine, national park fire crews and the Town of Banff’s fire department set up sprinkler systems at the upper village at Sunshine to protect the ski resort’s buildings.
Dave Riley, Sunshine’s chief operating officer, said the sprinkler systems are being put up as a precautionary measure.
“As it stands right now, the fire is quite a ways from the village and there isn’t really a lot of fuel if the wildfire was to move up the valley to us,” said Riley, noting smoke is the biggest concern at the moment.
“But floating embers could cause a problem if the wind picks up, so we are monitoring it very carefully.”
The lightning-sparked fire was discovered Saturday (July 15) at about 1,800 metres in elevation in the Verdant Creek drainage of Kootenay National Park – an area of old, dense forest that has not seen fire in recent history.
Parks Canada was quick to get a helicopter there to bucket it. Because of the steep, narrow nature of terrain, it was deemed unsafe to get air tankers in there to fight the fire. It was also too dangerous to have fire crews on the ground.
There are currently 60 fire personnel involved and five helicopters – with more resources on the way from other national parks across the country.
“We do manage fire within Parks Canada nationally and so we’ve coordinated resources from across Canada to assist us with this situation,” said Park.
Parks Canada is working with B.C Parks and B.C. Wildfire Service on managing the fire, noting the most active flanks are within nearby Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park.
Helicopters continue to bucket the eastern most edge of the fire, closest to Sunshine.
“Luckily the fuel in that area is alpine, so it’s quite a bit more open,” said Park.
“It’s not forested so the bucket work that’s being done is being successful at holding at the moment.”
As a precaution, fire crews are now looking at plans for other commercial businesses, including Sundance Lodge and Shadow Lake Lodge, as well as Parks Canada cabins in the Egypt and Redearth areas.
Park said crews were sent to Shadow Lake Lodge Tuesday afternoon.
“We are sending in crews to that area to go and assess the facility so we are aware of what’s required should we need to do the same things in the Sunshine area,” she said.
“We are being careful to make sure we prioritize the values at risk closest to the fire and closest to active flanks, so we don’t deploy too much equipment when we need it in different places.”
The Town of Banff’s fire department has been brought into the daily briefings to keep the municipality in the loop.
Silvio Adamo, fire chief and manager of protective services, said the municipality is well prepared in case something happens.
Adamo said Parks Canada has made it clear its number one priority is to stop the fire coming into the Bow Valley, noting the likely routes into the valley are Healy and Brewster pass.
“There’s no immediate threat to the town of Banff. We’re in a holding pattern, but if circumstances change, we, react,” he said. “We’re prepared, we’re closely monitoring and we’re in the loop with Parks Canada.”
The fire is spreading towards the south as well, but had stalled in the north in the vicinity of Redearth, which she said is likely due to terrain and moisture in the forest there.
Park said crews successfully completed a burn within Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park to tie the north edge of the fire into an avalanche path in the north Simpson area.
“It seems to be holding at that avalanche path for now,” she said.
This long stretch of hot, dry weather is early for this time of year, but the fire behaviour is no different than in previous years of big fires, including the 2003 Kootenay fires.
“We’re seeing extreme fire behavior in terms of crown fire, convective fire,” said Park.
Meanwhile, the fire ban is in place as a precautionary measure.
“We want to reduce the risk of additional fire starts,” said Park, noting the fire danger across the mountain parks is high to extreme.
“Obviously we have a lot on our hands. There’s a lot of fires in western Canada and nobody wants to see more.”
There are also two small fires in Yoho National Park that crews were hoping to have extinguished by the end of day Tuesday.
Another fire was reported at the trailhead of Boom Lake Monday, likely smoldering beneath the surface since last week’s lightning storm.
Parks Canada has different zones for managing fires, including whether to let fires burn under their watchful eye.
“In typical years, we may look at a full suite of options in terms of allowing it to grow on the landscape,” said Park.
“However, given the fire situation in Canada and for Parks Canada at this time, we are actively managing it in terms of suppression.”
The Verdant Creek fire has led to closures in both Banff and Kootenay national parks so Parks Canada can be better prepared to deal with pubic safety in case there are any dramatic changes in the fire.
In Kootenay, the area near Verdant Creek and south to the Simpson River is closed. In Banff, the Egypt Lake area, Healy Pass, Citadel Pass, Fatigue creek, Brewster creek valley, and Sunshine Meadows are closed. Hiking in the Sunshine area is closed, but the gondola and Upper Village remain open.
Dave McDonough, superintendent of Banff National Park, said Parks Canada is being conservative with the closures, noting signs have also been placed at trailheads.
“It’s easier to put in a closure rather than expose someone to potential risk down the line,” he said.
McDonough said backcountry campers and hikers in the region were quickly evacuated when the first was reported.
“We flew the area and we actually swept the area on foot as well,” he said.
“People were very cooperative and moved out of the closure area.”
Sunshine’s Riley said they’ve been in contact with Parks Canada daily, as well as B.C. Parks.
“We are working together to make sure that we put the safety of people first, our guests and employees,” he said.
“We are running the gondola and have the Sunshine Mountain Lodge open, but there is no hiking beyond that.”
-with files from Tanya Foubert