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A look back at Jasper park’s Excelsior wildfire

Burned Excelsior Trees

Parks Canada photo

July 9th began just like any other day. The town was bustling with tourists, restaurants were full and people were going about their business enjoying the beautiful summer weather.

But all of that changed when somewhere in the stratosphere a plane spotted the first sign of trouble in the Maligne Valley in Jasper National Park.

At 3:05 p.m., NAV Canada, the country’s civil air navigation services provider, contacted Dave Smith, a fire and vegetation specialist with Parks Canada, to report a plume of smoke.

While he was trying to pin point the location on a map, Smith got a second call around 3:30 p.m., this time from a wildlife guardian working along Maligne Lake Road, confirming his suspicions.

Within minutes, an initial attack crew was dispatched and almost immediately it was determined that the fire was already too large to put boots on the ground; it would require an aerial attack.

“This thing just exploded on us,” said Smith, during a presentation about the Excelsior wildfire on Nov. 18.

Within 45 minutes the fire, which started at the north end of Medicine Lake, went from a small plume of smoke rising over Signal Mountain to a running crown fire moving south towards Maligne Lake.

As it began to pick up speed, the fire managed to jump over Maligne Lake Road at the north end of Medicine Lake and burned the slopes along its west side, effectively cutting off the only road in and out of the valley.

With the fire burning out of control only 15 km southeast of Jasper, Smith put out the call to evacuate the valley.

“One of the public safety guys walked by and said, ‘Dave, do you think we should start thinking about getting things in place in case we have to evacuate?’ and I said, ‘No, evacuate. We have to push the button now,’” said Smith.

While the order went out to evacuate the valley, the RCMP had already closed the road to all incoming traffic.

Over the next two days, Parks staff evacuated more than 1,000 people from the valley, including more than 50 people from the Skyline Trial system, most of whom had to be airlifted out.

“We all know that one of the prime places to visit in Jasper National Park is the Maligne Valley, everything from the Sixth Bridge all the way up to Spirit Island,” said Smith. “So we had to evacuate all those people because the potential for this fire to keep on going was pretty high.”

In coordination with Parks’ evacuation plan, Maligne Lake Tours moved its boats to Spirit Island and  travellers in the Maligne Canyon Hostel were evacuated as a precaution. Parks also issued a fire ban across all of the Mountain National Parks.

In town, the municipality set up an evacuation centre at the Community Outreach Services building to help backpackers find a place to stay for the evening and make arrangements to pick up their vehicles, which were parked at the other end of the valley.

“It was incredible how well everybody worked together,” said Smith, who commended everyone who was involved, including the Jasper Fire Department for setting up sprinkler systems to protect the hostel and the buildings at Maligne Lake.

By the end of the first day, the fire had burned its way along the flanks of Medicine Lake before the column of smoke collapsed.

Overnight, Parks’ national office began putting together an incident command team with staff from across the country.

By early the next morning, 50 per cent of the team was already in Jasper with the rest arriving by the end of the day, explained Smith.

The following day, the community woke up to a thick blanket of smoke and news that the fire had grown from 250 hectares in size to 5,000 hectares. That number was revised to about 1,000 hectares on July 11 after the smoke cleared and Parks could get a better view of the burn.

In those early hours of the fire, Parks was also preparing for a number of different scenarios, including a shift in the winds that could potentially push the fire toward town.

“If this fire had gone in the other direction on that first day, it would have been coming around the corner, so we had to come up with a plan of what we were going to do if that fire decided to reverse itself and start rolling towards town,” said Smith.

“Our plan was to put a cat line through, take advantage of the old fire road that goes up to Signal Mountain and augment that with bulldozers to widen that line.”

According to Smith, Parks planned to make the road four bulldozer blades wide, but—as luck would have it—the following day, Mother Nature provided relief in the way of six millilitres of rain, tempering the raging fire and putting those plans on hold.

In addition to the fire break, Parks also had plans to fight fire with fire.

According to Smith, if the wildfire started heading towards town the moment it crossed a creek about 2.5 km from the most easterly point on the Signal Fire Road they would begin back burning the area from the fire line to the creek.

“Every once and a while a guy gets lucky,” said Smith, sounding rather relieved that the fire never did make its way toward town.

“Six millilitres of rain is not a lot of rain, but it was enough rain to give us a chance to get a toe hold.”

While Parks was fighting the fire from the air with seven aircrafts and up to 80 fire line personnel, the municipality was also preparing for the worst-case scenario—a full-scale evacuation.

“If the fire would have been coming the other way it could have been a Slave Lake [scenario],” said Fire Chief Greg Van Tighem, referencing the 2011 Slave Lake wildfire that forced 7,000 people to flee their homes and caused $700 million in property damage.

“I didn’t sleep for two days,” he said, admitting he was worried about how he would evacuate 50,000 people if it came down to that.

“Everybody was thinking this fire is over there, it’s fine, we’re great. Well, I was looking at the worst case scenario, the what if.”

In preparation for a full-scale evacuation, Van Tighem had a closed door meeting with the municipality’s emergency coordination centre (ECC) management team to ensure everyone was on the same page in case an evacuation became necessary.

“The biggest task for any ECC to deal with is evacuation. Think about an evacuation in Jasper. There’s 25,000 people in the valley who don’t even live here, there’s 5,000 residents, another 10,000 summer staff, we’ve got upwards of up to 50,000 people in our little area in the span of about 15 square miles.”

Of particular concern to Van Tighem was the fact that the town only had two open gas stations at the time of the fire.

“Think about it. You’re evacuating 50,000 people and they’re all driving cars, there’s no way in hell you’re going to fill up that many cars.”

According to Van Tighem, there are several ways the municipality would inform the community in the event of an evacuation, including by television, radio (CJAG 92.5 FM) and the Jasper Emergency Information Hotline: 780-852-3311.

“We will pretty much use everything we can to get the word out,” said Van Tighem.

“The big thing is that everybody listens, if we tell somebody to do something during an event we really need them to start doing it. We can’t have anybody second guessing us.”

One of the best things people can do to prepare themselves for a wildfire is removing flammable brush from their property and making their homes FireSmart.

In the case of an evacuation, people should also have a 72-hour emergency kit ready to go, at least half a tank of gas in their vehicle at all times and they should pack any medication they may need, contact family members and follow the instructions of local authorities.

“The biggest thing is don’t panic,” said Van Tighem. “You have a responsibility to be prepared yourself. I can’t stress that enough.”

According to Smith, the Excelsior wildfire actually started on July 1 after a lightning strike smouldered underground for more than a week before igniting after days of hot, dry weather.

In fact, days before the fire ignited, the temperature began to slowly rise as the relative humidity dropped, creating the perfect conditions for a wildfire to come to life. Experts describe this as “cross over” conditions.

The day the fire started, the temperature reached 30.5 degrees Celsius while the relative humidity was 16 per cent.

At the height of the fire, things went from bad to worse, with the temperature soaring to 33.5 degrees Celsius with a relative humidity reading of 13 per cent, explained Smith.

A fire burning under these conditions will often exhibit extreme behaviour and that’s exactly what happened on the first day of the Excelsior wildlife, allowing it to cover six kilometres in six hours.

By July 12, thanks to cooler temperatures and rain, crews were able get on the ground for the first time to directly attack the fire, along with six helicopters and a high volume sprinkler system.

Parks also set up a fire camp about 15 km east of the Jasper town site to house the additional staff.

In a stroke of good luck, a small plateau that was unusually moist stopped the fire from burning up the slopes along the west side of Medicine Lake, dramatically reducing the fire’s overall size.

Four days later, on July 16, Parks partially reopened Maligne Lake Road to Maligne Canyon and the hostel.

By July 20, Parks officially declared the fire under control and began to mop up remaining hot spots, cutting down fire weakened trees and removing loose rock.

With the fire under control, Parks brought in an infrared scanner to put out any remaining hot spots.

On July 22, Maligne Lake Road was officially reopened with a no-stop zone put in place through the burn area along Medicine Lake.

Smith said it cost Parks approximately $2 million to fight the fire.

In addition to fire line personnel Parks also had staff setting up weather monitoring stations on nearby peaks and a repeater system to help facilitate radio communication.

Despite the destructive nature of the fire, Smith stressed that forest fires are an important part of the ecosystem.

“Mother Nature is extremely resilient,” said Smith, noting green sprouts were already appearing only days after the fire.

Paul Clarke

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