PINCHER CREEK - While everyone in Waterton knew an evacuation was possible, they didn't know if it would actually happen. When the decision is made, the ball starts to roll very quickly.
Parks Canada decided to evacuate Waterton Lakes National Park early Friday afternoon (Sept. 8).
At that point, the Kenow fire on the B.C. side of the border on the western edge of the park had not actually infiltrated the park. However, the amount of smoke in the air had increased and Forestry officials were not able to obtain high altitude aerial information on the leading edge of the fire.
Given the extreme hazard, and to be safe, rather than sorry, the Parks department made the decision to evacuate Waterton Park and the townsite during the afternoon, rather than risk the possibility of having to do it during the night, when visibility would be significantly reduced.
Most of the residents were already prepared for the inevitable.
"You have to keep your thoughts straight and you have to think of the worst case scenario, be prepared for this, make sure you have water, make sure you have this, and then that first bag is packed. Then you think, well if you can bring another bag with us, then, these are the essentials that you need to take with you. But by this morning, we packed everything," said Michael Scott, a staff member at the Bayshore Inn in Waterton.
It turns out, the decision to evacuate was 'none-too-soon'. By 5:30 p.m. on Friday, the province confirmed the fire had crossed the B.C. border into the National Park.
The Vertical Church in Pincher Creek had already volunteered its facility as an evacuation centre and the necessary amenities were ready when people had to leave Waterton.
David Green is a Family Support Service Coordinator and the Emergency Social Service Coordinator for this event.
He says they set up a basic reception centre with registration forms, so that they could keep a record of who was coming in, and who was leaving and where they're going, as well as offering meals, over-night accommodation. He said they had tremendous response from local individuals, volunteers and businesses.
"We realize that a lot of folks will choose to register here, take a look at the facility, make some other decision or go, perhaps to a family member's place. That happens with any registration facility."
Green ran down what the evacuees could expect at the church.
"We'll have a chat with you, register you, make sure that we've got all of your information, so that if we're contacted by your family members, we have a reference and we'll make sure any message we get is passed along to you."
He explained that they intend to make people as safe and comfortable as possible.
"We recognize that evacuation is sometimes a traumatic event and we will have a counsellor or two on hand, that are experienced in disaster emergency social services, so those folks will be talked to and counselled accordingly."
Because they don't know how many people will be showing up at the centre or how long they might have to stay, the situation is dealt with day by day. However, Green says several local businesses, grocery stores, and restaurants have stepped up and said with five to six hours notice they can have supplies on site. One business called and asked how many sleeping bags were required, and they were willing to accommodate whatever number was needed.
For Friday night, the evacuation centre was well supplied with water, juice and granola bars, and a local restaurant had provided a vat of beef soup for dinner, as well as bread and salad.
Green was impressed with the local response that the evacuation order had elicited in a very short time.
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