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Banff, Yoho, Kootenay facing extreme fire danger

“We obviously can’t mitigate the natural ignition sources like lightning, but the fire ban helps limit opportunities for human-caused ignitions and hopefully that makes a difference.”
20210715 Smoke 0002-Pano
A blanket of smoke caused by wildfires in B.C., hangs over the Bow Valley on Thursday (July 15). EVAN BUHLER RMO PHOTO

BANFF – Extreme fire danger has led to a fire ban throughout Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks following what is believed to be have been a lightning-sparked fire in Kootenay.

With tinder dry forest conditions, continuing record-high temperatures and no rain in the forecast, fire bans apply to the Banff townsite and hamlets of Lake Louise and Field as well as all front country and backcountry areas, day-use areas and campgrounds.

“We’re in extreme fire behaviour and obviously we’re concerned about that,” said Silvio Adamo, the Town of Banff’s fire chief and director of emergency management, noting the Town of Banff initiated a fire ban to stay in step with Parks Canada.

“We obviously can’t mitigate the natural ignition sources like lightning, but the fire ban helps limit opportunities for human-caused ignitions and hopefully that makes a difference.”

On Tuesday (July 20), a small spot fire was located near the border of Banff National Park in Kootenay National Park within the site of the lightning-sparked 2017 Verdant Creek fire that burned 18,000 hectares.

Parks Canada initial attack crews were quick to respond Tuesday with helicopter support to bucket water on the small fire, which was only one-hectare in size and surrounded by rock and the old fire site.

Parks Canada officials say smoke cover in the area from other wildfires in British Columbia has kept fire behaviour low, noting the spot fire was 75 per cent contained by end of day Tuesday.

“Parks Canada expects the fire to be fully contained by July 21 and fully extinguished in the following days,” said Justin Brisbane, a spokesperson for Banff National Park.

“The fire is likely a result of natural causes and potentially a hold over from recent lighting activity in the area.”

There are currently no other known wildfires burning in Banff, Kootenay and Yoho national parks.

Parks Canada has two initial attack crews and two rotary-wing helicopters stationed in Banff.

Adamo said the municipality is in communication with Parks Canada daily, noting patrols are done by the federal agency’s fire crews regularly.

“They sometimes attach a bucket underneath their larger 212 aircraft in case they do spot something and they can quickly try to find a water source and extinguish it,” he said.

“We don’t want people alarmed when they see a helicopter with a bucket dangling underneath; it’s just a practice they are incorporating so they don’t waste time having to come back to Banff to connect the bucket if they do find something on their patrols.”

The biggest wildfire threat to the Banff townsite comes from the west and south.

Both the Town of Banff and Parks Canada have done significant WildSmart work around the townsite and in the Bow Valley to lower the risk of a wildfire taking out the town, including fire breaks.

A recent focus for the municipality has been more on its evacuation plans in the event of a wildfire, with additional work to establish mapping and look at where to establish checkstops or road blocks.

Adamo said calculations have been made on how long it would take to move all vehicles on the south side of the Bow River across the bridge, including visitor traffic at tourist attractions like the gondola and hot springs on Sulphur Mountain.

“We need about four hours to evacuate everyone on the south side,” Adamo said, noting there are plans for getting vehicles across both the Bow River bridge and pedestrian bridge.

“We’ve put a lot of effort into being prepared and we’re ready to respond. We’re trying to think about various contingencies and have back-up plans so that if a fire does start we can react quickly and effectively.”

Adamo said the municipality has practised and tested all of its equipment, including the two structural protection trailers and the converted type 3 engine that’s used as a wildland pump-and-run.

He said there are also other Town-owned resources such as watering trucks and some pick-up trucks in the fleet that could be used for fire operations if or when needed.

“We have a significant amount of equipment and we also have mutual aid agreements with our neighbouring communities,” he said.

“Obviously we can never be assured that we’re going to be able to get it because of the size or intensity of a fire,” he added.

“But we have everything in our means to try to make it as small a fire as possible or to extinguish it as quickly as possible to protect the community.”

The Town of Banff encourages residents to take precautions on their own properties, including removing combustibles around the yard or up against the home.

In addition, Adamo advises it’s a good idea to have a go-bag ready, especially in periods of extreme fire danger.

“All the important documents like passports, any medical documents and medication, should be ready in a go-bag in case you do have to evacuate,” he said.

“Make sure to review the evacuation guide either online on our website or the paper copy delivered to every doorstep. There’s also copies at Town Hall people can pick up.”

Residents have been on high wildfire alert in recent years, including during the 2017 Verdant Creek fire, which forced evacuation of Sunshine Village Ski Resort and Kootenay Park Lodge. In 2018, the Wardle Creek fire burned in the Vermilion valley of Kootenay.

In the mountain national parks, studies show fire suppression and climate change have altered the pattern, frequency and intensity of wildfires in Banff, Yoho, Kootenay and Jasper.

There used to be more frequent low and moderate intensity fires, whereas now there are fewer fires, but they burn extremely hot. For example, the 2003 Verendrye fire in Kootenay burned about 16,000 hectares, with 41 per cent characterized high severity.

In Alberta, scientists indicate Alberta’s provincial mean annual temperature has increased by 1.4 Celsius over the past 100 years, with much of that increase occurring since the 1970s from increases in winter and spring temperatures.

The trend is projected to continue over the next 50 to 100 years, with projections suggesting the province’s mean annual temperature could increase by at least 2 C by the end of the century, possibly as high as 4-6 C higher.

In addition, climate change is also expected to bring more extreme weather events throughout Alberta, including heavy rainfalls and very dry years predicted to become much more frequent.

A 2019 report released by the federal government showed Canada is warming, on average, at a rate double the rest of the world. Canada’s annual average temperature has warmed by an estimated 1.7 C since 1948.

Extreme warm temperatures have become hotter, while extreme cold temperatures have become less cold, according to the report prepared by Canadian scientists on behalf of Environment and Climate Change Canada.