Community After the Fire
NCC's Bob Demulder talking at the 2018 Waterton Eat & Greet (Photo by NCC)
In September 2017, Waterton Lakes National Park and the surrounding properties suffered massive damage from the Kenow wildfire. In the wake of the destruction, the community banded together to rebuild and try to predict how this natural disaster will affect their landscape in the years to come.
This is why the topic of NCC’s 2018 Waterton Eat and Greet was named Community After the Fire.
This year’s Eat and Greet was the 13th running of the annual event, which was held at the Twin Butte Community Hall and catered by Twin Butte Country Restaurant. The event always draws plenty of new and familiar faces for an evening of conversation about topics that impact the local community.
Even though winter storms caused the event to be postponed once and another weather warning was issued the day of the Eat and Greet, approximately 100 people still came out to hear local experts discuss the Kenow fire.
The evening’s speakers were Scott Murphy and Kim Pearson from Parks Canada, Kelly Cooley, local rancher and owner of CoolPro Solutions Environmental Consulting, and Barry Adams and Craig DeMaere of Alberta Environment and Parks.
The evening began with Scott telling the story of the Kenow wildfire from its inception — a thunder and lightning storm on the night of August 30 — until its conclusion on September 12, while providing insights into the challenges Parks Canada faced and why the fire was so difficult to control.
The Kenow wildfire burned under extreme conditions, including one of the driest Alberta summers on record. That summer, there were 14 fires in the area, and all of them except Kenow were extinguished the day they were discovered.
“We would have loved to put this fire out, but we couldn’t,” Scott told the community. “The reason we didn't put this fire out was not because we didn’t want to, it wasn’t because we weren’t allowed to. At less than an hour old, this fire was beyond our capabilities to do so.”
Despite Parks’ best efforts, the Kenow fire burned out of control, destroying about half the vegetation in Waterton Lakes National Park. At its peak, the fire was around 8,600 acres (3,500 hectares) in size. The flames were so high that it became dangerous for pilots to fly, forcing them to pull back and abandon the mission until the weather finally broke on the morning of September 12.
On a scale that ranks the severity of fires from one to six, Scott called the Kenow an eight.
“The fire grew too big too fast and we tried our darndest to keep it west of the Divide," Scott said. “We came up with plans and strategies to keep it in the park but ultimately we came to the worst-case scenario. This one didn’t have the happy ending we were hoping for.”
Kim Pearson then took to the stage with three key messages: extreme ecological changes have taken place within the park, renewal will eventually take place, and renewal may take some time and may look different from what people are accustomed to.
She discussed the impacts of various stages of burn severity on organic matter both above and below ground. In total, 44 per cent of the park suffered either high or very high severity, but within days of the fire, the landscape was already starting to show signs of resiliency.
NCC's Bob Demulder talking at the 2018 Waterton Eat and Greet (Photo by NCC)
“Kenow is not the first fire in the area. Before Waterton became a full fire-suppression park, natural forest fires used to occur,” said Kim. “Parks staff met with fire ecology experts in January, and what we’re hearing so far is very positive and encouraging. And what we’re seeing on the landscape is also encouraging.”
Grasslands, forests, waterbodies and wildlife will all be impacted by the changes happening in the landscape, but despite virtually all of the above-ground matter being removed and the mineral soil being exposed, some plants have already started to regrow.
Future challenges that the park and local landowners will face include preventing and treating invasive species in a landscape recovering from severe burn, which was the topic of Kelly Cooley’s presentation.
Although fire is a natural occurrence, Waterton Lakes National Park has been under fire suppression for close to a century, and over that time non-native plants have been introduced to the landscape either intentionally or accidentally.
Kelly said, “We’re moving across the globe faster than ever in human history. With that, we’re transporting species but not ecosystems.”
Some of these invasive species are highly adapted for post-fire recovery and are able to out-compete native species, meaning that they will have to be stringently managed to give local ecosystems the best chance to return unimpeded.
The evening progressed with Barry Adams describing the effects of the 1997 Granum fire on rangeland ecology and management, and using that past research to try and predict how the Waterton landscape will be affected into the future. Craig DeMaere concluded the presentations with his insights into how the public lands grazing leases management process could be adapted after the wildfire.
It was an emotional evening that took many of the presenters and audience members back to the stress and fear that surrounded the Kenow fire, But in the end, some clarity and hope for the future was gained. The gifts of great tragedies are the resiliency of the human spirit, the generosity and kindness of both neighbours and strangers, and the collective strength that comes from facing adversity together.
The Nature Conservancy of Canada is grateful to the people of the Waterton area for allowing us to play a small part in their community. We are deeply inspired by their commitment to the land and to each other and have no doubt that the best days are still ahead.