The Wardle fire in Kootenay National Park has expanded to cover an area 1,450 hectares in size, growing about 250 hectares on Tuesday, August 7. The fire was caused by lightning on August 2 and by August 3 had grown to 1,200 hectares in size.
On July 31 and again on August 2, a lightning storm moved through Kootenay, Yoho and Banff National Parks starting nine fires. By August 7, seven of those fires were extinguished by Parks Canada fire crews with the support of helicopters and bucketing action. The Wardle Fire, however, is still burning — on both sides of Highway 93 South, resulting in its closure.
In a conference call with regional media, Parks Canada Incident Commander for the Wardle fire, Jed Cochrane detailed how they are combatting the fire in the short and long term, and how they hope to get the highway back open.
Cochrane explained that the fire did not grow significantly over August 3 due to more mild weather which allowed their crews and helicopters some time to action the fire’s northern edge and along the east side of the highway where it was adjacent to Highway 93 South.
Along with the firefighters and helicopters, they also assessed dangerous trees and felled those to create a safe stretch of highway to work on where the fire had crossed over. They removed approximately 200 fire-weakened trees along a five-kilometre stretch.
The mild weekend weather also allowed crews to get in and action key areas of the fire and with the danger-tree felling, they were able to open the highway on Sunday of the long weekend, and keep it open until Tuesday afternoon.
“We considered [that] a big success given the high volume of traffic that was in the Columbia Valley and needing to return to the Calgary area,” Cochrane said.
The fire’s growth over the past day is attributed to higher winds, warmer temperatures and lower relative humidities.
“We’ve had basically an increase in fire activity in the highway corridor and in addition to that we are undergoing operations to bring the fire down to the highway and to containment lines,” Cochrane explained. “And what will happen there is if we’re successful with those operations that will speed up our ability to open the highway.”
They are currently undertaking operations to bring the fire down to the highway and containment lines, which will stop it from being active above the highway and allow them to extinguish the fire right along the road, opening the 93 South much sooner.
However, given the active wildfire situation and ongoing fire operations, the highway will remain closed until at least Thursday, August 9 at 12:00 p.m., at which time there will be another update.
“Of course we in Parks Canada and myself understand the importance of Highway 93 South to the communities and businesses in the Columbia Valley,” Cochrane said.
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“We’re sympathetic to those effected by the closure of through traffic on Highway 93 South and know that we are doing absolutely everything we can to get that highway open as soon as possible and what we need to do is make sure that i’s safe to do so first.”
Cochrane stressed the importance Parks Canada places on the safety of people, both citizens and their firefighters. In order for the highway to be considered safe, Cochrane explained, there are factors that need to be evaluated which include: the risk of falling trees onto the highway, anticipated fire movement or fire behaviour adjacent to the highway and adjacent to traffic moving through and the amount of smoke in the area that could effect visibility and safe travel.
Cochrane’s team is currently developing a strategy to bring the Wardle fire under control as quickly as possible and have been implementing some of those strategies already.
“There are a number of factors that impact fire operations and so we have a series of contingency plans that we’ve been developing.”
Factors that impact fire conditions include the upcoming week’s soaring temperatures, low humidity, and lack of precipitation. That will result in the fire continuing to be active over the remainder of the week.
“What we’ll be doing as a team is actioning key locations of that fire, trying to hold it in key spots in order to make sure that over the short to medium term here we can stabilize this fire incident as fast as possible and ensure that we can get the highway open as quickly as possible to traffic moving through.”
They are implementing strategies such as requesting heavy equipment from one of their provincial partners, Alberta Wildfire Management, which has been able to loan them a cats and excavators which they will be utilizing in both the Kootenay and Vermillion valleys in order to set up containment lines. That will allow them to remove the forest fuel down to the mineral soil, giving them something they can use to stop fire growth. Then they will employ helicopter bucketing on places where the fire is very steep, and it is unsafe to get crews into.
Kootenay Park is an active area for fires, with substantial blazes burning in 2001, 2003 and even last year with the Verdant Creek Fire.
“Almost all of the Wardell fire is in forests that hasn’t been burned in any of those subsequent fires so it’s older forests that haven’t been burned and so that’s one of the reasons it’s making it challenging to fight the fire.”
However it is burning adjacent to the 2017 fire, which will serve as a fire break, stopping it from growing significantly in those areas.
Years from now, Cochrane is confident that the fire will have an overall positive ecological impact in the area, as they know that historically that is the way fires have burned in this area with grasses and berry crops returning, drawing elk and grizzly bear to the area.