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Parks Canada planning massive fireguards

“As the climate is changing and fire seasons are getting longer, as well as the impact fire suppression has had on fuels, proactive fire management is something Parks Canada is doing,” said Charlie McLellan, fire and vegetation specialist for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay field unit.

LAKE LOUISE – Parks Canada is proposing a series of large-scale fireguards to serve as containment lines to protect communities in the Bow Valley of Banff National Park in the event of out-of-control wildfires.

Under the proposals, a large area would be logged in order to create a fireguard near Protection Mountain campground, spanning from the Bow Valley Parkway to the eastern slope of Protection Mountain east of Lake Louise.

There is also a proposal for a continuous valley-wide forest-fuel break to the west of Lake Louise from the south slope of Mount St. Piran to the cleared ski area runs on Whitehorn Mountain requiring large scale forest thinning.

Lastly, Parks Canada fire experts say that preliminary investigations are also underway for future consideration of a potential large fireguard between the old Highway 93A, the Lake O’Hara Road and Ross Lake.

“As the climate is changing and fire seasons are getting longer, as well as the impact fire suppression has had on fuels, proactive fire management is something Parks Canada is doing,” said Charlie McLellan, fire and vegetation specialist for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay field unit.

“That includes FireSmart around facilities, but also some of these larger landscape level projects, whether that’s prescribed fires or a strategic fireguard to stop fires if they start or have an area to contain them,” McLellan added.

“If you don’t have these types of features, it becomes really difficult to stop fires and they will burn a lot longer, and then the impacts of smoke are a lot longer. If you have some of these containment areas you can stop fires from burning all summer.”

Work on the Protection Mountain fireguard would tie into an existing natural rock slide in the area. This project would not begin until next winter at the earliest.

Parks Canada officials say any logging would not occur for the Protection Mountain fireguard until all engagement and impact assessment processes are complete and no additional considerations are raised.

“With any of these fireguards, what we’re looking for is a location that we remove the least amount of trees and other vegetation as possible,” said McLellan, adding the work will add about 40 to 45 hectares to the fuel break.

“Protection Mountain is taking advantage of the big rock slide that came off Protection Mountain and creates kind of a natural fuel beak already, so it would be removing some fuel at the bottom of that rock slide to join it in and down into the IA.”

Another proposal would see a valley-wide fireguard for an area west of Lake Louise, which has been in the planning process since 2018. It would involve large-scale mechanical forest thinning.

McLellan said the new proposal aims to build on some fuel removal completed in the region back in 2007.

“A lot of it is to link some of those patches together to create more of a valley-wide fuel break,” he said.

“Through the impact assessment process – there might be areas we wouldn’t go to – but the idea is to have a fuel reduction from essentially Lake Louise ski area to the Chateau to protect Lake Louise and the Upper Bow Valley in the event that there was a fire.”

McLellan said Parks Canada has talked about the project with local stakeholders in Lake Louise, but the next step would be Indigenous engagement.

“We’ve engaged on this one with the Lake Louise area board and some other folks already,” he said.

“There seems to be quite a bit of support, with what seems to be happening globally and nationally with wildfires.”

More recently, cutblocks have been flagged – and stamped ‘block boundary’ – between old Highway 93A, the Lake O’Hara road and Ross Lake.

McLellan said this is a very preliminary assessment on what potentially could become a fireguard in the future.

He said a contractor assessed the area, including vegetation, terrain and accessibility, to see if it could be an effective fireguard.

“But at this stage, it’s just the very first step. No project is planned for that area; we’re just looking at the potential for that,” McLellan said.

If this project were to ever go ahead, the goal is to prevent a wildfire in Yoho National Park from spreading towards Banff National Park and threatening Lake Louise.

McLellan said Parks Canada has good data on lightning-sparked fires, which are much more frequent on the west side of the Continental Divide, including in Yoho National Park.

“A project like that would look at the fire ignition, which is greater in those areas, although the risk might be up valley into the Upper Bow Valley and Lake Louise,” he said.

“It would be a way to stop a potential fire within Yoho National Park from going into Banff National Park.”

In 2003, the lightning-sparked Tokumm-Verendrye fire in Kootenay National Park burned approximately 13 per cent of the park.

At the time, Parks Canada ordered crews bulldoze trees and vegetation to make way for two massive emergency fireguards on both sides of Highway 93 South to prevent the fire from spreading into the Bow Valley.

The intense fire burned through Marble Canyon and jumped to the east side of Highway 93 South where it turned abruptly eastward and headed for the Bow Valley. However, the fire never advanced beyond Vermilion Pass because of the two kilometre-wide fireguard

“Some folks might recall that,” said McLellan. “That was a reactive approach where they put a guard in there to essentially stop the fire from going from Kootenay into Banff.”

But McLellan said the proposals under consideration now are more proactive rather than reactive approaches.

“Sometimes you don’t have time, but also you can’t take into all these other factors that we like to do – ensuring we can mitigate for the environmental components as well as engaging with people,” he said.

“Taking these proactive approaches is really important to help mitigate those risks as opposed to reactive approaches when you’re just suppressing fires after they start.”

In 2017, Banff was on alert when a lightning-sparked fire was discovered in July that year in a 300-year old spruce-fir forest in the remote Verdant Creek area of Kootenay National Park. Despite immediate and ongoing firefighting efforts, this fire grew to just over 18,000 hectares over the next two months.