Waterton: Post-Fire Snapshot

Editor's Note: Nearly a year after the Waterton fire, the area looks very different, but on a recent visit, OWC staff were heartened to see that there are hints of green and bursts of colour coming back! We're sharing some photos from late June during the 2018 Waterton Wildflower Festival.

Whether you are a lifelong local or are visiting for the first time, you’ve likely heard of Waterton Lakes International Peace Park. Famed for its quiet hikes, diverse wildlife, and resplendent wildflowers, this beautiful park was hit hard by the 2017 Kenow wildfire. Kenow burned a whopping 193 km2 of park land, which is 38.6% of the total area of Waterton Park.

You may have seen this video of Cameron Falls, with the ash-darkened water rushing down after a particularly heavy rainfall event in June. This is one of the many effects of the changed landscape. The fire removed a lot of vegetation that would normally reduce erosion, and runoff picked up extra sediment as it flowed over the ash and burnt vegetation that lay loose on the ground. Like previous instances of Cameron Falls turning pink following heavy rains, the phenomenon was relatively short-lived.

During the 2018 KEPA Summit and a recent Watershed Legacy Program visit, we got to see some of the aftermath of the fire close up. The blaze wrought substantial damage, but as we visited the Waterton Wildflower Festival we could see that the plants are already finding their way back onto the landscape. Though Waterton will never look the same, it is sure to re-establish and regrow in new and wonderful ways in the coming years and decades. There are already trails being reopened since our last visit, and the ash and char won’t be keeping us away!

 Fire often passes over low and quick-burning grasses, favouring the more dense annual shrubs and trees. Much of the soil has been burned away by the intense 2017 Kenow fire, but there are nevertheless pockets of new growth this season in many areas.

Fire often passes over low and quick-burning grasses, favouring the more dense annual shrubs and trees. Much of the soil has been burned away by the intense 2017 Kenow fire, but there are nevertheless pockets of new growth this season in many areas.

 Facing south towards the Prince of Wales hotel, charred mountains in the background are juxtaposed by this year’s bright and crisp flowers at the Waterton Wildflower Festival.

Facing south towards the Prince of Wales hotel, charred mountains in the background are juxtaposed by this year’s bright and crisp flowers at the Waterton Wildflower Festival.

 The fire did not reach the Waterton Lakes Campground, but to the southeast, where the Bertha Falls/Bertha Lake trailhead is located, there was a lot of damage to vegetation and trail infrastructure.

The fire did not reach the Waterton Lakes Campground, but to the southeast, where the Bertha Falls/Bertha Lake trailhead is located, there was a lot of damage to vegetation and trail infrastructure.

 This photo from August 2012 was taken by John Russell from north of the Waterton townsite. The townsite, Bear’s Hump, and the campground are all visible in the centre of the photo, nestled in the lush green vegetation established during  80+ years without fires .

This photo from August 2012 was taken by John Russell from north of the Waterton townsite. The townsite, Bear’s Hump, and the campground are all visible in the centre of the photo, nestled in the lush green vegetation established during 80+ years without fires.

 These photos were taken during the Canada Day long weekend, after our last visit and following the reopening of the Bertha Lake trail. Here you can see that there are small amounts of grass and weeds popping up, but it will be some time before the soil and trees regenerate. Thank you to Jessica Saigeon for the use of her photos.

These photos were taken during the Canada Day long weekend, after our last visit and following the reopening of the Bertha Lake trail. Here you can see that there are small amounts of grass and weeds popping up, but it will be some time before the soil and trees regenerate. Thank you to Jessica Saigeon for the use of her photos.

"This landscape has evolved with fire and will transform over time. Wildfires occur naturally and fulfill 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."

~ A look back at the Kenow Wildfire in Waterton Lakes National Park, September 2017

 Sofa Mountain, southeast of the Waterton townsite, was burned by a similarly hot  fire in 1998 . The area is showing slow signs of recovery because the soil was scorched away by the heat of the fire, leaving little for re-establishing plants to hold on to but bare, infertile rock.

Sofa Mountain, southeast of the Waterton townsite, was burned by a similarly hot fire in 1998. The area is showing slow signs of recovery because the soil was scorched away by the heat of the fire, leaving little for re-establishing plants to hold on to but bare, infertile rock.