A large wild fire continues to burn in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, on September 12, 2017. On Aug. 30, a lightning strike sparked a fire in British Columbia’s Flathead Valley, which spread toward the boundary with Alberta under hot, dry conditions. Waterton was evacuated on Sept. 8, as the fire was poised to spread into the southwestern Alberta park. THE CANADIAN PRESS/David Rossiter

‘A traumatic stressful event:’ Alberta wildfire took toll on park staff

Several documents obtained under the Access to Information Act highlight the trying circumstances Parks Canada staffers faced as they contended with a disaster

The pain would have been excruciating for two female black bears found in Waterton Lakes National Park after the Kenow Mountain wildfire tore through the rugged mountain landscape last September.

One was found lying on its back with severe third-degree burns on the bottoms of all four feet. The other was barely able to walk, apparently blind and had its ears completely singed off.

A wildlife health report obtained by The Canadian Press says putting the animals down was the only humane option and describes how Waterton staff shot them before Parks Canada’s wildlife unit arrived.

“This was a traumatic, stressful event for some of the staff involved and assistance by mental health professionals may be required in future to help with the psychological trauma resulting from these interventions,” says the report.

The document was one of several obtained under the Access to Information Act that highlighted the trying circumstances Parks Canada staffers faced as they contended with a disaster the agency described in one analysis as unprecedented in its severity and impact.

On Aug. 30, a lightning strike sparked a fire in British Columbia’s Flathead Valley, which spread toward the boundary with Alberta under hot, dry conditions. Waterton was evacuated on Sept. 8, as the fire was poised to spread into the southwestern Alberta park.

Related: Wildfire spreads in southwestern Alberta

Related: 2017 B.C. wildfire season will go down as “unprecedented”

The day before the evacuation, Pat Thomsen, executive director of Pacific Mountain and National Parks, wrote to the national office concerned Waterton employees would not qualify for travel status in the event they would have to live temporarily in Pincher Creek, 55 kilometres away.

Travel status enables employees to be reimbursed for costs such as transportation, accommodation and meals.

“This is not a helpful nor compassionate answer, and needs to be reconsidered,” Thomsen wrote. “Your intervention is requested ASAP.”

Parks Canada said in an emailed statement that employees who lived within park boundaries, were forced out between Sept. 8 and Sept. 21 and were still required to work were given travel status, consistent with the agency’s travel policy.

The fire jumped into the park three days after the evacuation and then spread onto adjacent grassland, prompting evacuation orders in nearby communities.

Notes for a phone call between Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick and Waterton superintendent Ifan Thomas recounted how just as Waterton staff were assisting with those evacuations, one Parks Canada employee learned his house had burned.

“Despite his personal situation, this employee continued to conduct the evacuation with the RCMP during the night and returned to work at 5 a.m. the next morning.”

The park’s visitor centre and other buildings were lost but the townsite was spared — an outcome top brass at Parks Canada credited to the staff who installed firefighting sprinklers, removed combustible material and made other preparations as the fire approached.

“As the area commander and field unit superintendent both affirmed, if it had not been for your prevention efforts, it is clear that the Waterton Lakes townsite would have been lost,” Parks Canada CEO Daniel Watson wrote in a Sept. 15 letter thanking employees.

He commended them for standing “generously, compassionately and resolutely in the face of the catastrophic,” regardless of lack of sleep or having lost homes in the fire.

Watson acknowledged the emotional toll the fire may take and committed that the agency would do whatever it could to offer support.

“We recognize that many of you have suffered personal loss or may have had to watch others suffer catastrophic loss … Some days we are a team. Today we are a family.”

Parks Canada said immediately after the fire, the agency provided mental health support to all its personnel, as well as staff from assisting agencies and contractors. All were invited to group counselling sessions and counsellors were also made available one-on-one.

“Materials and information on mental health and wellness has been provided to supervisors of Parks Canada staff who were involved in the Kenow wildfire, so that they can help direct staff seeking assistance related to managing stress, mental health, or wellness concerns.”

Related: Mountie in red serge chases away black bear

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Mount Washington opening for winter season this weekend

The resort’s original opening day was delayed due to lack of snow

IIO doesn’t recommend charges after motorcyclist death in Mill Bay

An off-duty VicPD officer was involved in the crash

New wind warning for most of Vancouver Island

Forecasters are calling for strong winds up to 90km/h for some areas

Two boats reported in trouble in Cowoichan Bay on Dec. 13

Coast Guard responds, but finds only one vessel that required assistance

VIDEO: Kitten rescued from under school bus in Duncan

School staff have affectionately called kitten “Axle”

VIDEO: Royals reveal the images on their Christmas cards

Prince William and his wife Kate are shown outside in casual clothes, their three young children in tow

Media, robotics, Indigenous studies coming to B.C. Grade 12 classrooms in 2019-20

Provincial tests are also being changed for students in Grade 10 to 12, the Education Ministry said

ICBC to apply for 6.3% hike to basic insurance rates

Crown Corporation said it will be submitting its next basic rate application to the British Columbia Utilities Commission Friday

Stranded B.C. trucker writes final wishes before being rescued 3 days later

‘I was just praying someone would come along’

Canfor Corp. extending temporary curtailment of sawmills in B.C.; cutting hours

Vancouver-based company says the decision is due to declining lumber prices, high log costs and log supply constraints

Canada’s prospective world junior team members await final roster decisions

Thirty-four players were invited to the national junior selection camp

Woman guilty of impaired driving in death of Vancouver Island pedestrian

Man in his 70s killed in 2016 Courtenay multi-vehicle incident

Family searching for B.C. professor last seen at Colombian salsa club

Ramazan Gencay, a professor in economics at Simon Fraser University, was last seen in Medellin

Rash of bomb threats a learning opportunity for response capacity, Goodale

Thursday’s wave of bomb threats swept across communities on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border

Most Read