Waterton residents on edge as growing wildfire threatens park’s Alberta townsite

By , on September 11, 2017


Map showing the location of Waterton Lakes National Park (Photo By Nzeemin - ETOPO1 for relief and bathymetryGSHHS dataset for coastline and riversFile:Canada location map.svg for borders; by Yug and STyxOwn workCreated with Generic Mapping Tools (GMT)This vector image was created with Inkscape., CC BY-SA 3.0)
Map showing the location of Waterton Lakes National Park (Photo By Nzeemin – ETOPO1 for relief and bathymetryGSHHS dataset for coastline and riversFile:Canada location map.svg for borders; by Yug and STyxOwn workCreated with Generic Mapping Tools (GMT)This vector image was created with Inkscape., CC BY-SA 3.0)

WATERTON LAKES NATIONAL PARK, Alta. — Mandy Mulcahy and her fiance Dave Formosa were watching nervously for news as a wildfire spread closer to the Waterton Lakes National Park townsite in southwestern Alberta.

The pair work at Vimy’s Lounge and Grill — she as a server, he as a sous chef — and have been living in a staff apartment in the small community with their three children since the spring.

“It’s a day-to-day thing,” Mulcahy said from a bed and breakfast in nearby Mountain View, Alta., where the family has hunkered down since Friday’s mandatory evacuation order.

“We get the fire updates and we get a little bit worried — a little bit more every day.”

Parks Canada said the Kenow fire Monday covered about 114 square kilometres and had moved 11.5 kilometres down British Columbia’s Akamina Valley over the past three days.

The fire had not yet breached the Akamina Pass in the southwestern part of the park on Monday afternoon.

But a smaller fire had started elsewhere within the park boundary and helicopters were dropping buckets of water on it to stop it from spreading.

Parks Canada’s Rick Kubian said the fire is a minimum of 15 kilometres from the townsite and has the potential to reach it within the next eight to 12 hours.

“That would require really specific alignment of winds and really challenging fire suppression conditions,” he said.

“And so with our fire suppression activities that we have planned and prepared for, we’re hopeful that it would not reach the townsite area in a single operational period, but it is possible.”

Kubian said he’s expecting another two to three days of burning before rainy weather is forecast to sweep in later in the week.

“There is some relief in sight.”

Authorities told people in the park early last week to be ready to leave on short notice.

The air was so thick with smoke at that point that Mulcahy and Formosa decided to have the kids — 14-year-old Marissa, 11-year-old Jayden and six-year-old Kaliyah — stay on a colleague’s mother’s farm outside the park.

The pair hung back until everyone was ordered out on Friday afternoon, when a forecast shift in wind direction heightened the danger to the townsite.

As they wait to return home, Mulcahy and Formosa said their children were keeping busy kicking around balls and playing hide-and-go-seek outside.

“Either way, I know when we go back it’s not going to be the same,” said Formosa.

“But we’re just praying and hoping that our house is still standing, our jobs are still available.”

Formosa was running a kitchen in Chatham, Ont., when he decided to take a job for a summer in Waterton. The initial plan was to work there alone for a season, but he loved Waterton so much that he decided to move his family there permanently.

“Just driving in, you see the views, you see the people, and everyone’s so friendly, everyone’s so happy,” he said. “Waterton is one of those places where you can’t be upset. There’s no stress — until now, of course.”

Lockey Craig, whose company Waymarker Hospitality owns several hotels and restaurants in town, said his businesses depend entirely on tourism.

September is the third-busiest month behind July and August and the town is mostly closed six months of the year.

“This is having a major negative economic impact on our businesses,” he said.

“We’re going to miss, I’m pretty sure, the whole month of September.”