Waterton Lakes National Park

Fire, Flood and Avalanche [Natural Landscape Processes]

Natural processes greatly influence Waterton and the greater Crown of the Continent ecosystem . They shape the land and, although they appear destructive, they are important for renewing and producing variety in the park's living landscapes. In Waterton, the three most critical natural processes are fire, flood and avalanches.

A view of the Sofa Mountain Fire Sofa Mountain Fire
© Parks Canada

Fire is as important as water, sun and wind. Fires don't just destroy; they create. When fire moves through a forest or over grasslands, many important things happen.

Dead plant material which has accumulated is burned, and nutrients tied up in that material are recycled for new growth. This regrowth provides new sources of food and shelter to wildlife. Fire also creates a mosaic of plant communities that provides a greater variety of habitats for animals.

Fires also eat up dangerous buildups of fuel in forests and grasslands created by dead wood, branches and other debris. This reduces the risk of more intense, difficult to control fires which may threaten people and property.

In the past, fires were totally suppressed, and their benefits lost. One way of reintroducing fire to the landscape is by prescribed burning. Small experimental prescribed fires have been lit, under very strict conditions, on various grassland areas in the park since 1989.

High waters on the mainstreet of Waterton park during the 1995 flood 1995 Flood in Waterton
© Parks Canada

They lessen the intensity of wildfires by reducing the amount of dead grass and trees in a given area. They also create a mosaic of habitat types, opening up areas and creating habitat preferred by edge dwelling animals such as Lewis Woodpeckers and Northern Toads. In the spring of 2006 Waterton's largest prescribed fire to date occurred on the grasslands beside the Entrance and Red Rock Parkways.

The Sofa Mountain Fire (1998) was the last major wildfire in the park. It has provided an invaluable opportunity to study the ongoing affects of a large-scale natural fire.

Floods are important natural processes that contribute to building and shaping the landscape. For example, the alluvial fans created by Blakiston and Cameron creeks grow and are replenished with nutrients following both small and large floods. Over the last century, large floods have occurred in 1908, 1923, 1937, 1953, 1964, 1975 and 1995.

Photo of an avalanche slide path Avalanche © Parks Canada

The Cameron fan has provided a prime lakeside location for the townsite. Although floods benefit natural habitats, they can be destructive to human habitats.

Parks Canada has tried to reduce the threat of floods to the townsite by straightening and reinforcing the banks of Cameron Creek where it flows through town. In contrast, floods are not inhibited from doing their natural ecosystem renovations on the Blakistan fan, which provides important habitat for ungulates.

The story of the alluvial fans of Blakiston and Cameron creeks touches on a number of park management and ecological issues. Check out this Tale of Two Fans.

Avalanches too are mainly considered destructive. While avalanches can, in a matter of seconds, hurtle down a mountainside, breaking large trees, releasing massive rocks and damming streams, they also clear the way for new vegetative growth and create prime habitat for grizzlies and other wildlife.

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