Water­ton park fire took toll on staff

Lethbridge Herald - - FRONT PAGE - Lau­ren Krugel THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

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.

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.

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