Four hours to escape: Residents of historic Alberta town scramble to flee wildfire’s path

Four hours to escape: Residents of historic Alberta town scramble to flee wildfire’s path
  1. Four hours to escape: Residents of historic Alberta town scramble to flee wildfire’s path
    Until last Friday, no one in Waterton seemed to believe their quaint little town could actually burn down. It has been around since the early 20th…
    Top Stories

Parks Canada staff came to the door at Northland Lodge on Friday morning to tell the owners it was time to evacuate; a massive wildfire had leaped across the border from British Columbia into the parched forests of southwestern Alberta.

Soon, it would reach the historic town site in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta’s secret playground, tucked beside a lake at the base of two mountains, little known elsewhere in Canada.

Stacy Tangren, one of the owners of the Northland Lodge, had four hours to brace her place for fire. First, she fed her two guests — the rest had cancelled after hearing news of an impending evacuation. She gave them muffins, coffee, Saskatoonberry pie and sent them on their way.

Until last Friday, no one in Waterton seemed to believe their quaint little town could actually burn down. It has been around since the early 20th century. With a population of 105, though few live there through the winter, it has managed to maintain its charm while other popular tourist destinations in the province, like Banff, have been built up and commercialized.

“You know, you have a hard time believing that it’s really happening,” Tangren said. Even after Parks Canada gave the order, it didn’t seem real. No flames were on the horizon.

But there was ash in the air. The sky was orange and the town, normally bustling at this time of year, was silent – just the chik, chik, chik of sprinklers dousing the roofs.

“It was just very surreal,” she said.

A photo of Stacy Tangren’s grandparents, Bessie and Earl Hacking from the 1920s. The photo was one of the few possessions Tangren grabbed before she was evacuated from her lodge in Waterton Lakes National Park. Stacy Tangren

Tangren Bates circled around her 1920s lodge, which has been in her family for four generations. “If the whole place burns down, what do I really want?” she asked herself. “What am I going to miss in a year?”

The blown-up photo of her grandparents in the 1920s, posing in one of the canyons nearby, likely on their wedding day. An old china set, with a floral pattern you don’t see anymore, dating to when the lodge was built. Some paintings from artists who stayed at the lodge. She packed them all in the back of her car, along with some accounting books.

In a push to save the town, firefighters were on scene burning dry vegetation that would otherwise fuel the flames. They set up sprinklers and pumped in water from the lake, soaking buildings to keep them from catching — including the stately Prince of Wales hotel that “presides” over Waterton on a bluff, as local historian Chris Morrison put it.

“We keep it a secret,” Morrison said of Waterton. “It’s just a different kind of a thing.”

The 505 square-kilometre park, in the southwestern corner of Alberta with the B.C. border to the west and Montana to the south, is often billed as the spot where the Rocky Mountains meet the prairies — “a string of clear glacial lakes, canyons, waterfalls and an incredible diversity of wildlife, from bighorn sheep to black bears,” Parks Canada boasts on its website.

Tangren had her own instructions, directly from a fire marshal. She bagged up the woodchips around the lodge. She piled the fire wood, stocked for the lodge’s stone fireplace, put it in the parking lot away from the building and p…

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