Approximately 200 people battled a 6070 hectare (15,000 acre) grass fire that started just west of Grasslands National Park’s west border, south of the Village of Val Marie, and cut a swath along the Frenchman River that ranged from one to five kilometres in width and stretched about 20 kilometres long.
The grass fire began some time on Saturday in the RM of Val Marie, and is thought to have been agricultural in origin. It was driven southeast by winds gusting from 40 to 80 kilometres per hour.
“It just takes one spark when you have a relative humidity of only 16, which is bone dry, and 100 per cent cured grasses and vegetation, and those winds gusting from 40 to 80 kilometers right into midnight. It was quite a formidable thing,” said Katherine Patterson, Grasslands National Park superintendent.
“We don’t know how many animals perished in that fire, unless they could fly away and chose to abandon their nests, but slow moving land animals would have been unable to survive: porcupines, badgers, coyotes, foxes.”
No human lives were lost, and Patterson was not aware of any ranches that were lost. Some buildings of sentimental value were taken, but from the perspective of national history they were not designated as heritage sites.
“From a national perspective they weren’t historic buildings … but in terms of local landmarks, they would have been peoples’ houses. We did lose two older ranch homes, empty but wooden structures very close to the campground including part of the Larson Homestead.”
Patterson noted that ranchers in the fire-ravaged area lost all their valuable spring seed, and several straw stacks and hay stacks may have sustained water or smoke damage. Several miles of fencing were burned as well.
“Not all of these fence lines are drivable, so there’s foot patrols and quad patrols checking and doing those spot fence repairs. I haven’t talked to all of our neighbours yet to understand the full extend of some of their damage.
“There would have been damage on private property on the west side of the park as well, just between Hwy 4 and the west side of the park. It impacted families in those areas but no homes, thank goodness.
“Then on the southern boundary of the West Block, there were multiple properties that had burning and maybe stackyard damage.”
Expert crews arrived from all of the surrounding national parks, including Prince Albert, Banff and Jasper, to help with fire mop up. The extensive perimeter of the fire and the terrain add to the challenge of patrol.
“We asked for expert teams to stay with us for a few days. Things like manure piles in a feed yard, willow roots on a riverbank, bison patties, the old juniper … those are all places that worry us,” said Patterson.
The grassy areas can be monitored visually, but smoldering beneath the ground is of greater concern.
“One of the old-timers told me that in the South Gillespie part of the park, fully two months after a fire was put out, it restarted again and escaped into the States from willow roots. People are far more aware of that now.
“We have offers from border patrol folks and specialty helicopters as well as on the ground with heat monitors. Those things day or night can sense very minor changes in heat, so even on a hot summer day you could walk a river bank and sense heat 18 inches underground in organic root matter.
“Even though it’s snowing, they’re out there today going deep into willow root beds and digging up the hot stuff and saturating it with water. Until we’re comfortable that we’ve done all the monitoring and all the hots spots are out, we wouldn’t declare that fire officially closed.”
Despite the destruction, some signs of renewal are already apparent.
“It is interesting though, even in the past two days the bison are seeking out the burned areas and pawing around in the soot. It’s almost like they instinctively know the grass is going to come up and be good for them in a couple of weeks,” observed Patterson. “So they’re not afraid of the smoke; they actually move towards it. The new grasses that come up will be very green, much softer and tastier, with more flowers.
“We’ve also noticed yesterday some Burrowing owls have come into the burn areas and have been flying around, kind of hopping from hole to hole, and it looks like it might attract many to nest successfully.”