Edmonton Journal

Deliberate burns do trick on Sawback

Blazes keep ridge in more natural state

- COLETTE DERWORIZ

BANFF — In the spring of 1985, a 120-hectare fire was lit to get rid of an oldgrowth forest of Lodgepole pine along the Sawback, a historic area along the Bow Valley Parkway.

The Sawback area was burned again in 1986, 1993 and 1998 — fires that would clean up woody debris and help to knock down any small pines before they started to develop cones and regenerate.

This year, two more fires were set in the area.

“Part of why we started burning is to get back to historical­ly what would have been here,” said Jane Park, fire and vegetation specialist with Banff National Park. “It’s pretty similar to what we see in the historic photos.”

The Sawback Range — only five kilometres west of the town of Banff — has a lot of history.

It’s home to a First Nations pictograph site. The landscape itself was historical­ly filled with wide open meadows — a state officials are trying to maintain with the prescribed burns, which are used to improve wildlife habitat and to diversify the vegetation species.

It took two years to plan this year’s fires, but they were finally ready to implement the plan last spring.

Fire crews from national parks across Western Canada did the work, burning 42 hectares on the east end by Guide’s Rock to contain its spread and on the west end at Hillsdale Meadows to prevent the larger fire from jumping the road.

Then, they waited for the perfect conditions for the big fire.

In early October, they got their opportunit­y when they realized it was fairly warm and there hadn’t been much rain.

“We started really trying to ramp up to see if we could get it to happen because that’s the day we started to see rain and snow in the forecast for the Thanksgivi­ng weekend,” she said. “That’s one of our key things we look for when it comes to prescripti­ons — if we can let Mother Nature put the fire out, we don’t have to put our people at risk or spend a lot of money or time putting it out.”

They mobilized the crew on Oct. 9.

By the next day, they burned 676 hectares — an area five-and-a-half times the size of downtown Calgary — in four hours.

“We burned 700 hectares beside the Trans-Canada Highway, the Bow Valley Parkway, beside the CP Rail, five kilometres upwind of Banff, inside a park, ahead of a long weekend,” she said. .

“It was a beautiful blue sky with a 10- to 15-kilometre southwest wind,” said Park. “When you think about how the slope is aligned, it pushed the smoke up the slope so it actually went over Lake Minnewanka and out that way toward the Ghost. So, people in town could see the plume, but almost everybody remarked about how little smoke they smelled in town. Park said the fire burned out on its own, without an ounce of water used by the crew.

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