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Mother Nature tempers raging wildfire in Maligne Valley

JasperNP-Panorama Viewpoint-Credit-Parks Canada-Rogier Gruys crop

Panorama of Medicine Lake. | R. Gruys photo

Rain and cooler temperatures continue to help fire crews fight the Excelsior Wildfire burning out of control in the Maligne Valley, about 15 kilometres south east of Jasper.

The fire, suspected to be caused by a lightning strike, was first reported on July 9 around 3:30 p.m. and forced more than 1,000 people to flee the picturesque valley over the course of two days.

“With the more recent rain and continued cooler temperatures it’s definitely helped to continue to slow the Excelsior Wildfire,” said Kim Weir, fire communications officer for Jasper National Park.

“It certainly isn’t as intense as last Thursday or Friday. This has provided us an opportunity to attack the fire directly.”

Initially, the fire was too intense to allow firefighters on the ground and bucketing water from the air proved pointless because the fire was too powerful to control with small amounts of water. After overnight rainfall on Friday, Parks Canada was finally able to put people on the ground on Saturday.

The fire runs along the flanks of Medicine Lake and extends along its southwest side toward Excelsior Creek, explained Weir.

It crossed Maligne Lake Road at the north end of the lake and burned the slopes along part of the road, near the Medicine Lake lookout.

In a rare bit of good news, an eagle’s nest at Medicine Lake appears to have survived the fire, despite the tree it’s perched on being partially burned.

“I heard from at least two folks that the eaglet was on the nest,” said Weir.

Burned Excelsior Trees

J. Imbeau photo

Weir said there is no timeframe for when the Maligne Valley will reopen and a fire ban is still in effect for all of the Mountain National Parks.

“We want to ensure that the area is 100 per cent safe fire-wise before we even think about opening [Maligne Lake Road], and then we also have some other factors to consider and that’s slope stability and road safety,” she said, explaining the fire has made some of the slopes unstable, causing boulders and trees to come loose.

“We recognize that the Maligne Valley is a very popular destination and we’re working hard to reduce the impacts on visitors, and the park is still open and available for use for people,” said Weir.

During the evacuation of the Maligne Valley, July 9 and 10, Parks airlifted 57 people from the Skyline Trail, one person from the Jacques Lake Trail and 19 people out of the backcountry near Maligne Lake.

Hundreds more drove out of the valley, passing the burning inferno near Medicine Lake. Dozens of campers were also escorted from Fisherman’s Bay and Coronet Creek campgrounds.

As of Tuesday, July 14, there were 70 firefighters fighting the fire, using six helicopters, as well as heavy equipment, which was brought in to create a perimeter around the fire.
Weir explained that crews are trying to create a perimeter directly adjacent to the fire’s edge, in order to stop its growth. To create the cutlines through the forest, Parks is using bulldozers and it has set up a high powered sprinkler system to keep the fire at bay.

A national incident management team, comprised of Parks employees from across the country, was also brought in to assist.

As a precaution, sprinklers were set up at Maligne Lake, Maligne Canyon, Maligne Canyon Hostel and Shangrila Cabin. However, no facilities are at risk at this time.

Parks initially estimated the fire was 5,000 hectares in size, but after mapping it on Saturday, that number was revised to 1,000 hectares.

“Due to smoke and extreme fire behaviour, visibility was too poor for mapping and the fire was estimated at 5,000 hectares,” said Parks in a statement published Saturday night at 8 p.m.

“It is not uncommon for estimates to be higher as they are based on straight lines and geographical features.”

Evacuation Centre Thursday night- P. Clarke

The municipality set up a reception centre Thursday night. P. Clarke photo

In response to the fire, the municipality activated its emergency operations centre July 9 in an effort to support Parks and to ensure it was prepared in case the fire changed directions, heading for the townsite. It also temporarily opened a reception centre at 627 Patricia St. for evacuees in need of assistance.

During the height of the emergency, the RCMP closed Moberly Bridge to all incoming traffic, but quickly reopened it to allow guests and employees access to the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. Old Fort Point Road was also temporarily opened to allow traffic to get out.

At the height of the fire, plumes of smoke could be seen as far away as Hinton and Edson.

As of July 15, there were 92 wildfires burning in Alberta with 12 burning out of control, according to Alberta Wildfire Management.

For additional information about the Excelsior Wildfire, an information line has been set up at 780-852-3311. Parks is also providing information to visitors at the Old Fire Hall.

Paul Clarke

For related stories, click on each of the headers below for all angles of the Excelsior Wildfire.

Hikers plucked from Skyline Trail

R. Gruys photo

R. Gruys photo

Curtis Germaine, a summer student from Grande Cache, was with four friends swimming in a lake about halfway along the Skyline Trail and a kilometre from their campsite when they first saw the smoke, July 9.

“We didn’t think anything of it and then the helicopter started flying around and eventually landed and a park warden told us we had to evacuate,” he recalled.

The men had already set up camp for the night at Curator Lake Campground, where another 13 people were also camping.

“It didn’t really feel real,” said Germaine, adding his group quickly packed up its site.

People were evacuated in groups of five and Germaine was told there wasn’t enough room for his bag, but on a subsequent trip it was picked up by a helicopter and returned to him.

He said he never felt frightened and he thanked everyone involved in the rescue.

“These guys have been wonderful here,” said Germaine, in reference to the staff at the reception centre that was set up in the Community Outreach Building to help evacuees get organized and access resources.

“Overall it was a cool experience that I think we will always remember and tell our friends and family about,” said Geramine.

The group stayed at Whistlers Campground for the night and said they planned to explore some of the other nearby lakes for the duration of their trip.

“Hopefully one day we will come back and finish the other half of the trail.”

Germaine and his friends were among 57 evacuees to be taken off the Skyline Trail. About a kilometre away at the Shovel Pass Lodge, a couple from the U.K. had just finished preparing dinner and was settling in for the night when they were told to evacuate.

“We were actually having dinner and a ranger walked in calmly and collectively and said, ‘guys, we need to evacuate you, no big rush,’” recalled Rose Thomas.

“The rangers stayed with us and there were four helicopter trips taking people out from where we were.”

Built in 1921, Shovel Pass Lodge is the oldest backcountry lodge in Jasper National Park and includes seven guest cabins and a main chalet, which can accommodate up to 18 people.

The lodge is about the halfway point on the Skyline Trail, just below Big Shovel Pass, near Curator Lake Campground.

“They had to evacuate everyone from the Curator campsite and get [those of] us that were staying at the lodge,” said Thomas.

She said the helicopter then dropped them off somewhere along Highway 93 where they were picked up by a Sundog Tours bus.

“We were quite disoriented because we didn’t really know what was what, but as I understand, some volunteers helped out shuttling us back to here,” said Duncan Macleod, referring to the reception centre.

“It seems like the town has mobilized to help everybody out,” he said.

Despite cutting their hike short, the couple said they still planned to hike into the Tonquin Valley.

“We likely spent close to $2,500 in assisting in this stressful event.”

Evacuation Centre Thursday night- P. Clarke

P. Clarke photo

At the evacuation centre, located at the Community Outreach Services building, at least 50 evacuees took refuge after being airlifted from the Maligne Valley.

Many were backpackers from the Skyline Trail who were picked up by helicopter, while others were campers who had spent Thursday night at Coronet Creek and Fisherman’s Bay campgrounds, waiting for further instructions from Parks Canada.

Inside the evacuation centre, volunteers helped sign people in, offered them food and drinks and helped them make arrangements to get back to their cars or find a place to stay for the evening.

“In many ways it’s business as usual,” said Kathleen Waxer, director of community and family services.

“We thought about what people coming in might require, water, coffee, tea and got organized.”

For many people, their cars were still parked at Maligne Lake, so they had to wait for a police escort to get back to their cars on Friday.

“Getting people to their vehicles at this end of the Skyline Trail was my first request of the RCMP, and I really appreciate their understanding and our working relationship,” said Paul Schmidt, Jasper’s victim services coordinator.

He commended everyone in the community for pulling together and said they were kept well informed throughout the entire process.

He also praised Sundog Tours for helping shuttle evacuees from the helicopter to the reception centre.

“We likely spent close to $2,500 in assisting in this stressful event, and I have the sense that people really appreciated everything that Community Outreach Services and Jasper Victim Services were doing.”

“It was like opening an oven door.”

R. Gruys photo

Valerie Domaine/Parks Canada photo

During the air evacuation, first responders were also implementing a full ground evacuation of the Maligne Valley, allowing about hundreds of visitors to drive down Maligne Lake Road, which was closed to oncoming traffic.

Telsha Knauer and her friend Michelle Yehia were hiking Bald Hills, located at the north end of Maligne Lake, when they were told to evacuate the area.

As they were driving down the road, they came within metres of the fire.

“We opened the windows and it was like opening an oven door,” said Knauer, who lives in Hinton.

“It got really dark really fast. Five more minutes up there and you probably couldn’t see anything.”

Knauer and Yehia were part of a stream of vehicles that could be seen heading down Maligne Lake Road heading across Moberly Bridge.

During the height of the emergency, RCMP officers shut down Moberly Bridge at Highway 16, stopping all traffic trying to get to the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. To accommodate their visitors and staff, JPL temporarily opened the bridge at Old Fort Point to allow traffic through.

Within an hour, the bridge was reopened, allowing visitors and employees full access to the hotel, and the closure was moved to the Sixth Bridge turnoff.

“It was like a moonscape.”

Smoke on Medicine Lake, Friday afternoon. | Dieter Regett photo

Smoke on Medicine Lake, Friday afternoon. | Dieter Regett photo

Dieter Regett, a driver for SunDog Tours, described returning evacuees to their cars on July 10 as an “eerie experience.”

“It was like driving through soup. You could barely make out what was going on. You could just see the silhouette of devastated trees.”

Regett, a long-time Jasper resident and avid outdoorsman, got the call around 9:30 a.m. on Friday to drive eight people back to their cars parked at Maligne Lake.

With an RCMP escort, he first drove to Sixth Bridge before driving to the top of Maligne Canyon where he met Mike Westbrook, a Parks Canada resource management and public safety specialist, who led him the rest of the way to Maligne Lake.

He said the fire appeared to stretch from the trailhead of Watchtower to the southern tip of Medicine Lake.

“It was like a moonscape,” he said, adding people were awestruck during the drive.

“It was pretty dramatic for them because all the people there knew what it was like before.”

He described the smell of the fire as “oppressive.”

“Even though we had the windows up and no air conditioning on, you could still smell it.”

Despite the devastation, Regett said he wasn’t surprised by the fire.

“It’s devastating and looks awful, but we as guides know this is nothing to be shocked about, this was going to happen, not if, but when.”

Protecting facilities and people

Paulette Trottier, who lives at the Maligne Canyon Hostel, had about an hour to grab her most prized possessions once she received an evacuation order from Parks Canada, July 9.

Sprinklers set up to protect the Maligne Canyon Hostel. | Paulette Trottier photo

Sprinklers set up to protect the Maligne Canyon Hostel. | Paulette Trottier photo

“We were just going to go have our tea out in the backyard and all of a sudden we noticed there were parked vehicles at the gate,” said Trottier, who has lived with her husband at the hostel for 33 years.

At first she thought there might be a bear in the area, but when she noticed the road was being closed, she instantly knew it was a fire.

After confirming her suspicions with people on the road and seeing the plume of smoke herself, she said it didn’t take long before Parks arrived to tell her she had an hour to evacuate the entire hostel.

“I took the pictures and paintings off the wall and loaded up my own vehicle and brought it to town right away,” she said.

With 24 guests checked-in Trottier first made sure they were all accounted for and had transportation into town before she turned her attention to her own personal belongings.

“Once I got home, about 20 minutes later, they came back and said you personally have an hour to get out of here, so take what you need and get out, because at the time they didn’t know how big it was,” she said.

After grabbing her children’s diaries, some winter clothing and a few more boxes, she left the hostel behind.

Since then she has been staying at a friend’s house in town, and so far Parks hasn’t given her any indication when she’ll be allowed to return home.

“They really couldn’t tell us,” she said. “On Saturday they told us at least two weeks and now things look a little bit better so we’re hopeful.”

Reflecting on the experience, Trottier said it was intense.

“You know how you always think: if there’s a fire what will you take with you? Well, all of that went though our heads and that’s what we had to do.”

On Saturday she was allowed to briefly return to the hostel to grab a few more things, but chose to leave most of her furniture behind.

She said Parks set up sprinklers around the hostel as a precaution and so far the fire hasn’t come anywhere near the premises.

The Maligne Canyon Hostel was one of four facilities to receive sprinkler systems over the weekend. The others include the Maligne Canyon Teahouse, Shangrila Cabin and the facilities at Maligne Lake.

Pat Crowley, general manager of Maligne Lake Tours, didn’t return phone calls, but according to the company’s Facebook page, all of its staff and visitors were safely evacuated and its tour boats were moved to Spirit Island and Fisherman’s Bay, in case the fire continued to move toward Maligne Lake.

Smoke increases sale of inhalers

Dieter Regett photo

Dieter Regett photo

With thick smoke hanging in the valley, obstructing the view of Jasper’s surrounding mountains and filling the air with an oppressive smell of campfire, visitors and locals flocked to the pharmacy for emergency inhalers, July 10.

Rexall Pharmacist Tasha Porttin said she dispensed far more inhalers Friday than she ever has in a single day.

“What I saw on Friday was people coming in in fear that their breathing was going to be affected, so it wasn’t so much that people were experiencing difficulties breathing, it was the fact that if the smoke would have stayed at the level it was at

Friday morning for several days, they would have had difficulties.”

Emergency inhalers are used to open airways, allowing a person to breathe and catch their breath, preventing an asthma attack.

“So anybody that has asthma, COPD, even seasonal allergies or sensitivities to smoke, essentially their lungs will constrict, that’s why an asthmatic will get a cough because they’re not getting the oxygen that they need.

Porttin said she didn’t see any patients who were already having trouble breathing, but rather they were all filling prescriptions as a precaution.

While the air quality was particularly bad Friday morning, the Municipality of Jasper advised community members experiencing respiratory discomfort to visit the Seton Healthcare Centre and Parks Canada was asking visitors to keep the smoke in mind while planning their trips to Jasper National Park.

The smoke cleared Friday evening, leaving behind only a slight haze and by Saturday evening the town was nearly smoke free.

Fire on the landscape: A natural process

Prior to human intervention, fire was regularly seen on the landscape of Jasper National Park.

Burned Excelsior Trees

J. Imbeau photo

Every five to 10 years, low intensity fires would burn through the valley, rejuvenating the forests and providing new growth to feed wildlife.

“We live in a fire prone area, this area is used to fire,” explained Kim Weir, fire communications officer for Jasper National Park. “In a natural fire cycle we would have had very frequent fires at low to moderate intensities.”

When the Mountain National Parks were formed, fire was seen as something that destroyed the landscape, so wardens were hired primarily to extinguish fires.

By removing fire from the landscape, vegetation in the parks changed, making forest less diverse, in turn reducing wildlife habitat.

In recent years, Parks Canada has worked to reintroduce fire on the landscape through prescribed fires and it has opened itself up to allowing natural fires to burn, as long as they don’t threaten public safety or facilities.

“Fire can definitely be a good thing,” said Weir. “Fire is a really, really important natural process to Jasper National Park and this area. There are wonderful ecological benefits as long as the fire is safe and doesn’t threaten people or facilities.

“On the ecological side we’re going to have that wonderful regeneration that we haven’t seen in many parts of the park because of decades of fire suppression, so we’re going to have that wonderful regeneration, which basically equals really good wildlife habitat for a variety of species, including grazing animals and bears.”

Wildfire a reminder to be prepared

R. Gruys photo

R. Gruys photo

Although the community was never at risk, that wasn’t immediately obvious Thursday afternoon, as an ever-expanding plume of smoke rose above Signal Mountain.

With that memory fresh in the community’s mind, Fire Chief Greg Van Tighem said he hopes people will reevaluate their emergency plans and ensure they’re ready in case of a town-wide evacuation.

“Residents need to understand they have a huge responsibility when it comes to emergency preparedness,” he said. “They’re responsible for themselves and their families.

“The municipality can only do so much: we have a plan; we have trained employees; we have mutual aid agreements; we have relationships with people; we practice; we drill, but the reality of it is, if we had to evacuate the town of Jasper, it would be an undertaking of astronomical proportions and without the help of the residents being prepared themselves it would take a lot longer.”

Van Tighem asked that people make a plan with their families and friends, pack an emergency kit and always keep gas in the tank, reducing the number of people who have to hit the pumps in the case of an evacuation, “because,” he said, “we’re not only evacuating the residents, we’re evacuating the guests and visitors.”

In the case of a large-scale evacuation in the midst of the summer season, that could mean an evacuation of up to 30,000 people and a long line up at the gas pumps and the gates.

Van Tighem noted that these guidelines aren’t just for wildfires, but for the possibility of a number of different emergencies, including everything from toxic waste spills on the train tracks or the highways, to severe storms causing town-wide power outages.

Check out the municipality’s website for Jasper’s evacuation guidelines, as well as tips for emergency preparedness.

Fire ban for all Mountain National Parks

N. Veerman photo

N. Veerman photo

As a precaution, a fire ban was implemented after the Excelsior Wildfire was reported Thursday, July 9.

That ban was extend to all of the Mountain National Parks the following day. That includes Banff, Yoho, Kootenay, Mount Revelstoke and Glacier national parks.

“We’re asking people not to start or maintain any open campfires here in the Mountain National Parks. People can still certainly come and use portable barbecues, propane and gas barbecues,” said Kim Weir, fire communications officer for Jasper National Parks.

The fire ban will be lifted as soon as conditions permit.

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