‘Nature knows what to do’: Renewal at fire-ravaged Waterton Park

This story is part of the World on Fire series, a five-part podcast that takes us to the front lines of out-of-control wildfires in Canada, Australia and California. Recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic, each episode examines what it takes to find hope in the midst of fear and destruction. Wildfires cost us our health, our homes and our communities, yet people everywhere rebuild and not just survive — but thrive. 

When Waterton National Park burned, even some conservationists wondered what would become of the picturesque mountain ecosystem. 

The Kenow wildfire struck the southern Alberta park in September 2017, incinerating more than 19,000 hectares of forest and grassland, nearly 40 per cent of the park.

“Because of the extreme nature of it and the extreme impacts, there was a time when there was uncertainty,” said Kim Pearson, a Parks Canada ecosystem scientist in Waterton.

“Some of us were wondering, ‘Gosh, what is going to happen here?'”

Lightning from an intense storm on Aug. 30, 2017, struck Kenow Mountain in B.C., igniting the fire close to the park boundary.

Six days later, evacuation orders for the park became mandatory. By Sept. 11, the fire was firmly established, with flames racing northeast down the Cameron Valley throughout the afternoon. 

‘Larger than what’s come before’

The fire moved north at a staggering speed, spreading through the grasslands along the park’s entrance road. 

Throughout the night, the fire raged with a rare intensity. 

It moved north and east, even beyond the park boundary. Flames lit up the crumbling grey vistas of Crandell Mountain as towering lodgepole pines and cottonwoods went up in flames like matchsticks.

While the townsite was saved, park buildings, bridges and trails were destroyed. The flames did not subside until the snow fell.

Large swaths of forest were left smouldering and black. The landscape had evolved with fire but in three centuries, it had never experienced one this large, Pearson said.

“The Kenow wildfire was a lot larger than what’s come before,” she said. 

“It’s not uncommon for there to be fires of that size in this ecosystem but what was unique about it is that it moved really fast, it moved at night and the behaviour of that fire was a really high intensity.” 

Kim Pearson, an ecosystem scientist with Parks Canada, speaks about the park’s regrowth after a wildfire three years ago in Waterton National Park. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Tree cover over much of the park was destroyed. And while some animals died, many survived — even thrived — in the post-fire ecosystem. Trail cameras throughout the park captured bear and cougar on the move in the days that followed the fire. 

Two years later, the park has undergone extreme ecological changes. 

Without a dense forest canopy to block the sun, plants and flowers quickly returned, allowing new life to take hold.

“Wildfire has been part of this ecosystem all along,” Pearson said. “It’s certainly a natural part of the ecosystem and a really important one.”

Much of the park’s wildlife survived the fire and could be seen foraging and hunting in the burned remains of the forest. (Dan Rafia/Parks Canada)

‘Things are coming back’

Elk, bear and deer are still plentiful and smaller mammals are thriving in the rich new growth. 

Visitors to the park will see verdant, lush vistas surrounding the park’s glacial lakes.

“Spectacular fields of wildflowers on mountain slopes. That’s been one of the most surprising parts of the post-fire environment,” Pearson said, pointing across a bubbling creek to a slope covered in large tufts of grass. 

“I think a lot of people would be hard-pressed to know that a fire had happened here just a couple years ago and stripped it of all the living vegetation.

“Things are coming back and re-establishing.” 

Waterton’s Maskinonge wetlands area, looking southwest toward Mount Crandell. (Parks Canada)

 

Red Rock Canyon has bounced back after being incinerated by the wildfire. (Parks Canada)

Researchers within the park continue to monitor the ecological changes and it may take years to fully understand how Waterton’s habitat has been altered.

But there is no doubt the park is teeming with life. Destruction has given way to renewal. 

“There is black all around and things seem very devastating at first but there is lots of hope to look forward to,” Pearson said.

“It might take a little while but if you look closely there are a lot of positive things happening. There is still life in those areas. It’s not a dead area.

“Nature knows what to do. It comes back and it’s fascinating.” 

Wildflowers bloom at the base of blackened trees after wildfire three years ago in Waterton National Park. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

This story is part of the World on Fire series, a five-part podcast that takes us to the front lines of out-of-control wildfires in Canada, Australia and California. Recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic, each episode examines what it takes to find hope in the midst of fear and destruction. Wildfires cost us our health, our homes and our communities, yet people everywhere rebuild and not just survive — but thrive. 

Read more at CBC.ca

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