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Plans for Banff's main prescribed burn on hold after fire gets out of control

“It is unfortunate that the prescribed burn became out of control, but we fully understand that these things can happen due to sudden weather shifts in the mountains," said Banff fire chief Silvio Adamo.

BANFF – Parks Canada has extinguished plans for the main prescribed fire at Compound Meadows after preparation work for the primary burn got out of control on Wednesday afternoon (May 3).

The main 125-hectare Compound Meadows prescribed fire, aimed at improving habitat in an important wildlife corridor between the industrial compound and Trans-Canada Highway, and to protect the Banff townsite from a future wildfire, was scheduled for Friday (May 5), but has been put on hold.

“Ignition related to prescribed fire operations in Compound Meadows have ceased for the spring/summer season,” said Alexandria Jones, fire information officer for Banff National Park in an email statement.

“Ignition will only proceed if it will assist in suppression actions and protection of the public or infrastructure."

On Wednesday, flames jumped from the west side of Banff Avenue to the east side, burning about three hectares of land, forcing the evacuation of Banff Rocky Mountain Resort and Mount View Barbecue – a private event and reception venue – and at least 10 horses from the Banff Light Horse Association corrals.

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Crews were black-lining – the pre-burning of grasses and shrubs adjacent to a control line before igniting a prescribed burn – to protect the wildlife exclusion fence along the Trans-Canada Highway when wind whipped up unexpectedly and spread flames to the east side of Banff Avenue. Wind spends went from 10 km/h to 28km/h very quickly and were not in the forecast.

“The Compound Meadows prescribed fire excursion remains classified as ‘being held’ at three hectares,” said Jones.

The fire burned down three sheds at the Banff Light Horse Association corrals, the iconic Bill Peyto entrance sign to the Town of Banff on Banff Avenue, and damaged some wildlife fencing along the Trans-Canada Highway.

“We can confirm that there was some minor damage to the Mountain View cemetery, some of the trees, the grassed area and the stone wall,” said Silvio Adamo, Banff’s fire chief and director of protective services for the Town of Banff.

On Thursday, fire crews worked throughout the day to extinguish hot spots on the eastern side of Banff Avenue, with rain falling in the afternoon helping in some suppression efforts.

Jones said fire crews will continue working in the area in the coming days, adding residents and visitors may see increased helicopter activity, smoke and flames while crews work.

“With cooler temperatures and precipitation, fire behaviour is not anticipated to significantly increase,” she said.

“Incoming precipitation will further assist in fire suppression efforts this weekend.”

Along with Parks Canada personnel and certified firefighters and incident command members who were participating in the intensive 12-day Women-in-Fire Training Exchange (WTREX), The Town of Banff was called in to help when the prescribed fire made its run around 4 p.m.

Banff’s fire department was already on site throughout the day supporting the WTREX program, with seven firefighters assisting Parks Canada with sprinkler deployment at Banff Rocky Mountain Resort and horse corrals, plus two structural protection trailers and its wildland engine.

But Adamo said Parks Canada command post called for additional resources to help manage the fire when a sudden and not forecasted change in wind direction and wind speed pushed the flames across Banff Avenue.

He said the fire department had a total of 16 members helping, along with two pumper trucks and two command units on scene.

Adamo said the Banff townsite was never in any danger of evacuation.

“Although the incident command confirmed that the Town of Banff was not in any risk, we alerted our community out of an abundance of caution,” he said.

“We were never in a state of preparing to evacuate any part of town, and, indeed, no area of the town was affected.”

Operating under Park Canada’s command, the Banff Fire Department was deployed to the area east of Banff Avenue, near the Mountain View Cemetery and the Banff Light Horse Association corrals.

“The Town of Banff was fully engaged with Parks Canada in a support role and we have high praise for their effective management of the fire,” said Adamo.

“It is unfortunate that the prescribed burn became out of control, but we fully understand that these things can happen due to sudden weather shifts in the mountains.”

Adamo said the Town of Banff is confident that Parks Canada took all precautions and analyzed the conditions before proceeding with the measures to create fire breaks.

“We were not in command of the prescribed burn so we will not speculate on the data and information they used in decisions,” he said.

Specific to the prescribed burn near the townsite boundary, Adamo said the municipality is grateful for the efforts of Parks Canada to increase protection around the community.

“Fire is the No. 1 hazard in Banff,” he said.

In addition to extensive work to create large fire breaks in the forest southeast side of town, Adamo said the work underway this year is removing deadfall and burning to stimulate grasslands.

“This work is difficult, it is precise, and extremely valuable for enhancing the protection of the Town of Banff,” he said.

“We know the extent of the planning, coordination and expertise that goes into the prescribed burn. We have worked with Parks Canada many times in the past,  and we remain fully confident and thankful for their work on this activity.”

The ecological objectives of the Compound Meadows prescribed fire is to reduce the amount of pine and spruce trees within these meadows, stimulate aspen and grass growth, and restore habitat in an important wildlife corridor.

Another main goal is to help protect the Banff townsite in the event of a future wildfire, by reducing a build-up of fuels that would otherwise be available for a wildfire to consume. Wildfires that burn in areas where fuels have been reduced by prescribed fire cause less damage and are easier to control.

In spring 2022, Parks Canada successfully burned 125 out of 300 hectares within the Compound Meadows prescribed fire unit, on the north side of the Trans-Canada Highway below Cascade Mountain.