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

Deboon retires from conservation service

After nearly 30 years of service as a conservation officer in the… Continue reading

Gallery: Fernie Alpine Resort closing weekend

Our best photos from the Powder, Pedal, Paddle relay race, Fernival and Slope Soaker.

Focus on emergency preparedness

Fernie to host 2018 Association of Kootenay Boundary Local Governments Convention from April 18-20.

VIDEO: Gerry Pang – the heart of hockey

After coaching hockey goaltenders since 1997, Gerry Pang has finally decided to hang up the skates.

Snowboarder fatality at Fernie Alpine Resort: deceased not wearing helmet

A 53-year-old male snowboarder succumbed to his injuries

VIDEO: Work is play for this B.C. avalanche rescue dog

CARDA certified Joss’s Job is to save lives — but to her, it’s all a game

Black Press Media acquires two new Alaska newspapers

New Media Investment Group to acquire the Akron (OH) Beacon Journal while Black Press Media takes on daily newspapers in Juneau and Kenai Alaska

Thieves target B.C. firefighters helping flood victims

The service has been helping with sandbagging efforts, as rural Oliver battles flooding

Fernie Ghostriders recruit new head coach

Jeff Wagner assumes role of Ghostriders head coach

B.C. towns rank in top honeymoon destination worldwide

Vernon, Kaslo, Sunshine Coast and the Island hit Expedia.ca’s list of top 18 honeymoon destinations

Men arrested at Starbucks say they feared for their lives

Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks, becoming viral video

Olympic gold now official for B.C. weightlifter

Christine Girard’s bronze medal from 2012 Olympics upgraded to gold, IOC announces

Did a Canadian shoot down the Red Baron? A century later, debate hasn’t quit

Om April 21, 1918 two Canadians in their canvas-covered Sopwith Camel biplanes engaged the enemy

VIDEO: Canadian teen lands invite to Royal wedding

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have invited Faith Dickinson, founder of Cuddles for Cancer

Most Read