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

Goldie goes for gold in roller derby world cup

Duncan roller derby star making impact on world stage

Parksville resident builds bike to glide along railroad

ICF says rail use not permitted on active railroad

Games opening ceremonies promise to be magical

The Cowichan 2018 BC Summer Games will kick-off on Thursday, July 19… Continue reading

‘Love Bite’ brings vital message for dog owners

Thetis Island woman recounts life-changing ordeal

France doubles up Croatia 4-2 to win World Cup

Played in Moscow Russia, latest Fifa World Cup marks the highest scoring final since 1966

REPLAY: B.C.’s best video this week

In case you missed it, here’s a look at replay-worthy highlights from across the province this week

VIDEO: Firefighters put out brush fire in Nanaimo

Fire broke out in the area of a new development under construction in East Wellington

Former NHL goalie Ray Emery drowns in Lake Ontario

Police say the 35-year-old’s death appears to be a ‘case of misadventure’

Air quality statement warns of smoky air for Kamloops area

Environment ministry says area on north side of Thompson River may be affected by wildfire smoke

Pussy Riot claims on-field protest at World Cup final

Russian protest group claimed responsibility after four people ran onto field in police uniforms

Fans party on Montreal streets after French World Cup win

To city is home to nearly 57,000 French nationals

Motorcyclist dies as fire, crash happen at the same time on Nanaimo Parkway

Young male motorcycle rider collides with one vehicle, then struck by another

Victoria Police issue a public warning after a man was injured by a hidden syringe

Used syringes in discrete locations have caused injuries over the past year in Greater Victoria

Hiker rescued by helicopter after receiving burns in ‘cooking incident’

Campbell River Search and Rescue has been busy of late…

Most Read