A look back at the Kenow Wildfire

Wildfire burning in the forest
The Kenow Wildfire burned into Waterton Lakes under extreme conditions

On August 30, 2017, after an intense lightning and thunder storm, Parks Canada fire management staff in Waterton Lakes National Park detected a wildfire about 10 kilometers from the park boundary, in British Columbia.

Exceptionally hot weather, strong winds and extremely dry conditions fuelled the extreme behaviour of the Kenow Wildfire over the next week.

Parks Canada worked closely with partner agencies and neighbouring jurisdictions as the fire progressed. Fire crews created fuel line breaks and helicopters dropped water on hotspots to prevent the spread of fire. In addition, fire retardant was sprayed on picnic shelters, washrooms, and other visitor facilities.

Fire facts
  • 2017 was the park's third-driest summer on record
  • 148 firefighters worked on this wildfire
  • 11 helicopters were used
  • 19,303 hectares (38%) of the park burned

In the Waterton townsite, high-volume water pumps and sprinkler systems were installed around the edge of the community and trees, shrubs, grasses and other flammable items were removed from properties.

As preparations were underway, an evacuation alert was issued and on September 8, with hot, dry weather and high winds in the forecast, an evacuation order was issued.

The Kenow Wildfire firmly established itself in Waterton Lakes National Park on September 11, 2017, moving northeast down the Cameron Valley along the Akamina Parkway. Later in the evening, flames were visible from the Townsite and on the north side of Crandell Mountain.

The wildfire began to move north at a high rate of speed, spreading through the grasslands along the park’s entrance road. Overnight, the wildfire moved north and east out of the park and into adjacent lands.

In the end, the wildfire burned 38,000 hectares, including 19,303 hectares in Waterton Lakes National Park. The wildfire had a significant impact on built infrastructure in the park. Akamina Parkway (16 kilometers), Red Rock Parkway (15 kilometers), associated bridges, guardrails, signs, picnic areas and parking areas were affected despite the best efforts of facility protection crews.

Over 80% of the hiking trail network has been affected by the Kenow Fire. In addition, the Visitor Centre, Crandell Mountain Campground, many buildings at Canyon Youth Camp, the Alpine Stables, staff housing and associated infrastructure such as water and electrical systems were destroyed by the fire.

Looking ahead

An aerial view of the Blakiston Valley after the Kenow Wildfire
Extreme ecological changes have taken place in Waterton Lakes National Park

This landscape has evolved with fire and will transform over time. Wildfires occur naturally and fulfil critical ecosystem functions, with the positive ecological effects usually greater than the negative. These are dynamic ecosystems, changing and adapting in response to natural forces.

This wildfire has removed canopy cover in the park which will provide an opportunity for smaller, ground-based plants to establish. A complete understanding of the impact of this wildfire on the park’s ecology will take many years to assess.

Parks Canada is undertaking the necessary assessments, analysis and planning to develop a long-term recovery approach for Waterton. We are working to restore the National Park experience in a manner that is safe for our many hundreds of thousands of annual visitors and fully consistent with the ecological objectives for the park.

Many recreation opportunities remain available in the park. For an up-to-date list of open areas and recreational opportunities, see our What's open in 2018 web page.