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Coaldale firefighters battle Waterton blaze

Posted on October 11, 2017 by Sunny South News

By Nikki Jamieson
Sunny South News

Fire departments from across Alberta travelled to Waterton last month as the Kenow fire crossed provincial borders.

The fires in B.C. had been going all summer, and it crossed into Alberta early last month. On Sept. 3, Parks Canada had announced  the Kenow Mountain fire was at the Waterton Boundary. An evacuation alert was issued on Sept. 5, as a preemptive measure.

The Coaldale fire department received a call for aid a few days later, and immediately rushed to help.

“We got the call early on Sept. 8, in the morning, requesting us to send some resources out there to help with the Waterton fire situation,” said Kevin McKeown, fire chief for the Coaldale Fire department. “They wanted us there within eight hours, so we got a crew together and we sent two trucks — one wild land engine and one structural engine, with six firefighters total.”

The Coaldale firefighters arrived at the park at 5:30 p.m. Going into the park, the group had no idea what to expect.

“I knew there was a big fire out there, we didn’t know what the situation was exactly going on,” said McKeown.

“We just knew that they were looking for help, and we were happy to set up and send our resources out there to help. We went out there not really knowing what we’re going to be up against, and kind of soon found out what was going to happen.”

After checking in with the scene commanders that night, on Sept. 9, the Coaldale crew found out there assignment: protecting the Prince of Wales Hotel alongside the Calgary and Waterton Fire Departments.

“For the next few days, we worked closely with Calgary and Waterton (fire crews) and Rapid Fire to establish a water supply up to the Prince of Wales Hotel,” said McKeown.

“The fire was quite a ways from town still, so we were kind of getting updates every morning on the progress that the fire was making over night, kind of where it was heading. We were basically for the first couple of days setting up and getting ready, and planning for the worst.”

During the night of Sept. 11, the fire came into town.

“We kind of figured it was going to be hitting that night, because of the growth that had happened,” said Riley Roth, PCP firefighter with the Coaldale Fire Department.

“We were doing a lot of dry runs and soaking everything down, and, pretty much, we were about to shut it down for the night, we were just kind of had an eye on the fire, and then, just over the hill top, I believe of the Akamina, we could see the embers, and we could see the fire coming. We had already disconnected our hoses and everything, so we went straight back up to the Prince of Wales, had everything set up, had all our lines ready, and for basically, ready for war. I would say an hour after that, that’s when it started coming into town and the winds picked up.

“It just came. We had no idea what was coming, how it was going to come, and it moved extremely fast. I was a pump operator, so I could see everything going on, and once it moved up Bear’s Hump, that made it — not to say real, but you see everyone putting up picture’s of bear’s hump and ‘Pray for Waterton’, and you see that one go up, that made it real.

According to Park Canada update issued on Sept. 11. the fire had traveled   “4.5 km southeast along the Akamina Valley during yesterday’s burning period and as of this morning is approximately 1.5 km from Akamina Pass”.

Later the same day, it was reported that the fire was “firmly established” in the Cameron Valley, and “Extensive infrastructure and facility protection is installed within the townsite”.

On Sept. 15, Parks Canada reported that the main Prince of Wales building was not impacted by the fire, although some surrounding facilities were damages.

“The calls that chief and Calgary fire made really, the only reason the Prince of Wales Hotel was saved, they had a couple of hand lines protecting our pump houses’ structures and surrounding, and if those were to go, thing definitely would be a different story. But the calls that were made of the command of the Prince of Wales definitely saved that hotel.”

The firefighters had kept the area around the hotel wet and foamed the hotel itself to prevent embers from lighting on it. McKeown noted that during the daytime, they would have to re-wet everything every hour as it dried so quickly in the high heats and wind.

Bryce Easingwood, firefighter with the Coaldale Fire department, also credited McKeown’s quick actions during the fire. He and Coaldale fire captain Craig Wilson had been setting up sprinkles at the warden’s station as the fire was approaching, and McKeown alerted them of the danger.

“As the fire was coming, it was setting spot fires ahead of the fire  which is just many fires essentially — which turned into a huge problem for us,” said Easingwood.

“Lucky for us, chief was up on the hill watching and observing the whole thing, and could see the fire behavior and see it was flanking us back to the road. So chief here made the call to evacuate from there. Probably within a minute longer, it probably would have been too late for us to get back to the hotel.”

They ended up fighting the fire from about 7 p.m. on Sept. 11 well into the next day, getting a small break at 6 a.m. on Sept. 12.

Although the Prince of Wales Hotel was saved, other buildings weren’t so lucky. The Alpine Stables northeast of the Visitor Centre and the Visitor Centre were all claimed by the fire.

But even though the danger from the fire had passed for the time being, the fire still had to hard to ensure that no stray ember caught something on fire. The fire was also still going strong in Akamina Valley, so they still had to protect the buildings.

A new shift of four firefighters relieved four fire fighters on Sept. 15, with their structural engine coming back that day as well. Two Coaldale firefighters stayed behind with a bush buggy to help take care of hotspots, with them due back around Sept. 22.

The colder weather, along with a little rain, had contributed to the fire not growing in the Middle of September. Snow had also moved in on the mountain, which also helped the fire situation.

“From a day and a half apart, you have the driest season in memory, and then a fire,” said Easingwood.

“Then you have, a couple of days later, you have snow in the mountains. Only in southern Alberta would you have such a drastic measure of weather change.”

According to the Oct. 3 Parks Canada update for the fire, the Kenow fire is classified as “under control”, which is partially credited to the over 20 cm of snowfall received early last week.

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