Skip to content

Parks Canada crews preparing for wildfire season

“We had over 30 fires last year and that included illegal recreation fires as well as some lightning fires in that count."

BANFF – Parks Canada is setting up for the upcoming wildfire season in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks.

Every year, multiple wildfires burn in the parks, and those that pose a risk to communities or infrastructure are quickly put out, while others in more remote areas may be allowed to burn under certain conditions for ecological reasons.

Parks Canada officials say there were 37 fires in Banff National Park in 2022, which includes 28 illegal recreation fires, four lightning-caused fires, and five that were unknown or other causes. The 10-year average for fires in Banff is about 22 annually.

“We had over 30 fires last year and that included illegal recreation fires as well as some lightning fires in that count,” said David Tavernini, acting fire and vegetation specialist for Banff National Park.

“I would say in the past couple of years that’s a pretty standard number.”

The snowpack is lower than average this year, but Parks fire experts say it is too early to say how severe the wildfire season may be, noting the snowpack is just one factor to consider when looking at the season ahead.

However, when looking bigger picture, Tavernini said fire seasons are predicted to become longer, larger, and burn more severely with climate change.

“Year to year and throughout the fire season it’s hard enough to predict the weather, but for the summer it’s pretty challenging, and the fire danger will fluctuate significantly throughout the year,” he said.

“However, if we’re looking on a really broad scale, we know that climate change really plays a role in fire trends, and for this area we can anticipate longer fire seasons, more increased prevalence of fires and increased intensity of fires.”

Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks have established guidelines that dictate the level of resources and service as it relates to daily wildfire danger. In addition, a risk assessment is used to determine the numbers and types of resources assigned to manage a park’s wildfire response.

Rolling into spring, Parks Canada is making sure crews will be fully staffed and firefighting equipment is ready.

“We’re also continuing to focus on a lot of training, which actually takes place all throughout the winter and then as we head into the season,” said Tavernini.

In a unique training opportunity this season, Parks Canada will host the first Women in Fire Training Exchange in Banff National Park on May 1-12, expected to attract approximately 40 participants plus speakers, presenters and trainers.

Participants in this program will also get to take part in one of two front country prescribed fires this year in Banff National Park – the second phase of the 194-hectare Compound Meadows burn to be carried out south of the Trans-Canada Highway and west of Banff Avenue.

“We’ll have fire practitioners of all genders, backgrounds, ethnicities, races that are coming from across the world to train together,” said Tavernini.

“That plays two really fundamental roles in fire management – the event that’s centred around equality, diversity and inclusion and empowering women in fire management, but operationally, it builds a huge amount of capacity because we get to exchange a lot of information and knowledge about fire behaviour and operations that we take with us into the fire season and share with others.”

In terms of personnel for the upcoming wildfire season, Tavernini said Parks Canada keeps some crews on over the winter to do fuel reduction work.

He said there were about 12 this winter and another eight crew members will come on board heading into the fire season, in addition to a host of other fire management personnel.

“Throughout the summer, depending on the fire danger, we can call up other national parks to share resources,” Tavernini said.

“We can also access neighbouring agencies as well as bring in other contracted resources as needed based on the fire danger and forecasted fire danger.”

Helicopters are typically on standby in periods of high fire danger, but are available if a fire starts even when the hazard is low.

“In terms of having them on standby for rapid response, it’s most operationally beneficial when we’re in higher fire danger,” said Tavernini.

According to the 2020 integrated fire management plan for Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks, a national assessment of fire risk and potential consequences rated Banff, Kootenay and Yoho in the highest category – level one risk, level five consequences.

This was based on the probability of fire occurrence and potential consequences with respect to public safety, potential infrastructure losses, and disruption of critical services.

Level five consequence is defined as major potential for loss of life and serious injuries with long-term effects. It also means potential widespread displacement of people for prolonged duration and extensive damage to properties and infrastructure.

Silvio Adamo, fire chief and director of protective services for the Town of Banff, said the municipality is well prepared for the wildfire season ahead, which kicks off closer to summer in this region of the province.

He said the Town of Banff and its fire department work closely with Parks Canada’s fire and vegetation team in the lead up to fire season as well as throughout the fire season, noting the fire department will be involved with the prescribed fires this year at Compound Meadows and Fairholme benchlands.

“We always try to get together at the beginning of every fire season for a sort of orientation with our members and go over the capabilities of both entities,” said Adamo.

“We bring different specializations. They are definitely the landscape fire experts and we’re the structural fire experts and it’s a great mix.”

Adamo said there has been a lot of pre-planning with Parks Canada following the Verdant wildfire in neighbouring Kootenay National Park in 2017.

That lightning-sparked fire burned more than 18,000 hectares over two months, leading to the evacuation of several facilities, including Sunshine Village in Banff National Park.

“We created a pre-plan, which is in our emergency management plan, and it basically has planned out based on some of the worst fire behaviour indices how much time it would take if a fire started down the valley to reach us,” said Adamo.

“We’ve established what action would be taken working in cooperation, when we would go into unified command together, and how we would notify people to evacuate, and how we would evacuate in a coordinated fashion folks outside of the town boundaries and folks inside the town boundaries.”

Adamo said all of the Town’s and Parks Canada’s emergency plans and preparations for wildfire response are comprehensive.

“We won’t be stumbling when something like this happens,” he said.

“We’ll know exactly when we’re going to jump in together and go into unified command and coordinate in the best and most efficient way possible.”

Historically, fires in Banff National Park were both lightning-sparked and lit by Indigenous peoples, but fires were immediately extinguished for almost a century until Parks Canada began reintroducing fire in 1983 through prescribed burns.

The decades-long fire suppression efforts resulted in a build-up of dense, flammable vegetation across much of the park, and these dense forests blanketing the valley bottoms increase the potential for larger and more intense wildfires.

With prescribed fires thinning out dense pine stands, opening up meadows and grasslands, the intensity of fires is decreased and can be put out by rain or fire crews more easily. Previously burned areas also further limit the spread and growth of wildfire.

Tavernini said this makes it easier for firefighters to battle wildfires.

“In this area, the landscape is largely shaped by fire, and so by implementing fire suppression laws throughout the 20th century and the hard stop on any sort of Indigenous burning as well as natural fires, fire was restricted to being unable to play its role on the landscape,” he said.

“Having prescribed fires on the landscape allows us to strategically manage fire and be able to utilize that patchiness in the forest to be able to manage fires safely.”

During Alberta’s 2022 wildfire season from March 1 to Oct. 31, there were 1,246 wildfires recorded across the province, which burnt 130,858 hectares of land. At least 61 per cent of those were caused by people.

push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks