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Alberta’s Waterton Lakes National Park evacuated; firefighters ready to defend town

A fire crew member rakes up dead grass near the town of Waterton, Alta., in this undated handout photo. A popular national park in the southwestern corner of Alberta has been evacuated as of Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, due to the danger of a nearby wildfire burning in British Columbia.

Nicholas Alexander/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A town in an Alberta national park that would normally still be teeming with late summer visitors is now empty except for emergency workers who are preparing to save its buildings from a wildfire.

"The only people left in town are for firefighting purposes," RCMP Cpl. Curtis Peters said Saturday from the Waterton townsite, a day after Parks Canada ordered the evacuation of Waterton Lakes National Park.

"Any non-essential personnel have left."

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Firefighters were busy in Waterton, however, getting ready in case the Kenow fire, which has been burning for over a week in British Columbia near the boundary with Alberta, advanced to the edge of the community.

John Stoesser, a fire information officer with Parks Canada, said a perimeter of high-volume pumps and sprinklers have been set up around Waterton to create a wet barrier to slow down the flames.

Stoesser said firefighters from Calgary, Lethbridge and other nearby communities are positioned around the town, including at the historic Prince of Wales Hotel that overlooks the community from a point in Waterton Lake.

"We have fire engines here. These guys are ready to put out spot fires that would be the biggest threat if the fire reached the townsite," Stoesser said, adding the crews have been familarizing themselves with the town so they can respond in a hurry.

The mandatory evacuation order was made because a forecasted shift in wind was expected to heighten the wildfire danger.

Parks Canada told people earlier in the week they should be ready to leave on short notice. But Friday, the flames covering close to 80 square kilometres advanced into the park.

Peters said the evacuation was "a very smooth operation." RCMP are now controlling entrance at the park's gates, he said.

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The Alberta government said no one was staying overnight at an evacuation centre that was set up inside a church in Pincher Creek, but that evacuees are still encouraged to register so officials can easily contact them with any new information.

The province said the flames Saturday were approximately 15 to 20 kilometres from the townsite.

Stoesser said that strong winds fanned the flames Saturday afternoon, but that only a spot fire of about half-a-hectare in size had actually burned inside the park's boundary. Mostly, he said, the fire was moving in a southeast direction along the Akamina Valley in B.C., just outside the park.

He said helicopters had been dropping buckets of water on it until the winds picked up, and he said their operations will resume once the winds die down.

"The wind has certainly woken the fire up a little bit. We did see some more intense fire behaviour starting this afternoon," Stoesser said.

Crews are also protecting two backcountry warden cabins, three day-use areas, some campgrounds, a church camp and a ski shelter.

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Video: B.C. firefighters aim to prevent wildfire spread with controlled burns (The Canadian Press)
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