Jennifer Jenkins has seen what remains of her five-generation cattle ranch on the edge of southwestern Alberta’s Waterton Lakes National Park.
Hers was one of five ranches destroyed in a wildfire that as of Sept. 18 continued to burn out of control and had already burned about 70 percent of the national park. The latest estimate of fire size is 89,000 acres.
The Jenkins property included four houses and a cabin, all but one of which are gone, along with the corrals, barns and shop.
All but two fields used for wintering the 200 head-cow herd burned, and crews were still putting out spot fires when she checked on the place last weekend.
She and other ranchers in the region have been allowed in for brief periods to check on livestock and begin assessing damage, but little can be done until the fire is brought under control and emergency personnel deem it safe for re-entry.
As of Sept. 18 there were no confirmed reports of injuries to people or livestock. Some cattle remain unaccounted for in part because access to areas near the park remained closed and under mandatory evacuation orders.
“We lost a lot in the fire but we are really lucky everybody got out,” Jenkins said.
“As bad as it is, I think we were tremendously lucky.”
Though still shaken by events, Jenkins said she has been overwhelmed with support from her neighbours. Some of them fought the fire near her property and checked on her cattle despite the evacuation orders.
In the fire’s aftermath, many stories are emerging about neighbours helping neighbours.
“That’s more overwhelming than the fire. I know that sounds crazy,” said Jenkins. “I thank God for my neighbours because those guys put the time in.”
The community has already scheduled clean-up bees, and donations of hay and other services are starting to emerge.
The fire became a distant threat during the week after Labour Day, when it was slowly making its way from British Columbia toward the national park.
Jenkins and many other ranchers moved their cattle away from the park perimeter to safer pastures, at the time thinking it was only a precaution.
The lead time was fortunate because on the night of Sept. 11, wind conditions brought the fire into the park, where it expanded rapidly. A second fire forced mandatory evacuation of several hundred people north, west and east of Waterton boundaries.
Yet another fire front forced evacuation of the Castle Mountain area northwest of Waterton.
Crews from across Alberta converged on the park, saving the historic Prince of Wales Hotel and the townsite. Lost was the park’s visitor’s centre, other outbuildings and Alpine Stables, a trail riding business on the park’s edge.
The Garner family’s Rocking Heart Ranch, located off Highway 5 east of the park entrance, was also lost in the blaze. Jim and Angel Garner escaped with little more than the clothes on their backs when the fire unexpectedly shifted direction and speed, said their daughter, Melody Garner-Skiba.
“When they left, it was 100 yards (away). He could see this wall of fire coming towards him. So he and Mom just got the hell out of Dodge.”
About 100 Quarter horses on the ranch were saved. A neighbour spotted the senior stallion on the road the day after the ranch burned. Garner-Skiba said they later noticed the horse had singed hair from what must have been a close call with flames.
Survival of the horse herd was a surprise and a blessing, she added.
“I’ll be honest, when we got the news on Tuesday morning (Sept. 12) that we could go back in … we were taking guns and ammunition out with us because we honestly thought that we were going to be putting horses down, that we were going to find corpses.”
The sight of the home place was another shock.
“I don’t know how to describe it. I’ve never been in a war zone, but that’s what I would imagine a war zone looks like. Just complete and utter devastation. It was mind boggling,” said Garner-Skiba.
Now the family is focusing on the future. Rocking Heart Ranch went ahead with a colt starter challenge Sept. 16 that had been planned for months.
“There is only one option and that is to rebuild, so you might as well get focused on it and get working on it, right? We’re looking through the windshield right now, not through the rearview mirror.”