It’s not a surprise to hear the relief in Ron Cadrette’s voice. The Vice President and General Manager of Glacier Park, Inc., which owns and operates the iconic Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park, bore witness to an incredibly close call early this month.
The Kenow Fire has now burned about 30 percent of the park. It’s currently classified as “being held” by Parks Canada. And the threat to the 90-year-old Prince of Wales Hotel—and to the townsite of Waterton—has been lifted.
Cadrette visited the hotel last Monday (September 18) for the first time since the area was evacuated and says he was “totally amazed to see how close the fire came.”
"As we drove into the park you could see how much vegetation had been destroyed by the fire. The landscape was unrecognizable,” he says. “We drove up the driveway to the Prince of Wales and you could see where the fire had scorched both sides of the drive. From the parking lot, from that famous vista, you could see just miles and miles of charred landscape.”
Then, he and a team of engineers went inside the hotel. Relief again. “There was no significant smoke infiltration, which had been a big concern. And no sign of water intrusion. None of that.”
When the lightning-sparked Kenow wildfire took off and started heading fiercely towards the town of Waterton on September 8, Cadrette says the situation got serious very quickly.
Before the fire itself became an imminent threat, Cadrette says the smoke and air quality was a key issue. His team had already begun implementing their emergency procedures, a process that had been “sharpened” by the 2015 Reynolds Creek fire near St. Mary, Montana.
Then, after attending a community meeting in Waterton on September 5, Cadrette made the call to close the hotel. Over the course of three days, September 6 to 8, guests and employees were evacuated from the Prince of Wales. More than 1800 reservations were rebooked or rerouted, with many of those bookings going to GPI’s other properties in Montana. The hotel was closed on Friday, September 8 at 11am.
Immediately, crews from the Calgary Fire Department as well as the Coaldale and Waterton fire departments arrived on scene and began to soak the structure of the hotel. They executed preventative burns on the tall grasses around the perimeter of the hotel and worked tirelessly to secure and maintain the water supply. By September 11, the wildfire had intensified and was moving towards the townsite. Crews drenched the hotel’s exterior in water and fire retardant. Cadrette says they had three ladder trucks hosing the building down. By late that night, the fire was knocking on the hotel’s door, with flames in the area reaching 400 feet into the sky.
“It was the most intense fire I’ve ever been involved with,” Calgary Fire Department’s District Chief Jeff Primrose later told the media. The key, he said, was training, preparedness and being properly resourced.
“The way they protected the hotel was outstanding,” Cadrette says. Wind and smoke hampered everything. “I’m told there were embers the size of baseballs that were landing on the roof of the hotel.” At one point, the fire was 50 yards away. It burned the nearby Visitors Centre to the ground, and also left the hotel’s maintenance shed in ashes.
The superintendent of Waterton Lakes National Park called Cadrette on September 12 to say the Prince of Wales had been saved.
Throughout the ordeal, Cadrette says communication was key. “We worked very closely with Parks Canada in making sure we had all the information we needed to properly execute our emergency plan,” he said. “We commend the job Parks Canada and Waterton town officials did in keeping the community informed and educated on the status of the fire.”
As much as the landscape is charred, Cadrette says it’s also beautiful. “It’s an incredible opportunity to see Mother Nature rebound from the fire - with destruction comes rebirth.”
While Waterton is a drastically different place today, from the outside and from the inside, Cadrette says the Prince of Wales Hotel itself “looks as it would any year at this time,” he says. “We were very, very fortunate.”
Waterton Lakes National Park is now open to the public, although the hotel is now closed for the year, following the annual protocol that happens at the end of each season. Reservations for 2018 are already streaming in.
But perhaps the most inspiring sensation Cadrette and his team are left with is one of profound gratitude.
“The people involved with all of this—both our team that had so much to deal with and the team of professional firefighters – are real, true professionals,” he says. “We are so very grateful.”
For more information on the Prince of Wales or to book your 2018 stay, please visit princeofwaleswaterton.com or call us at 1.844.868.7474.
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Header image credit: Parks Canada / Roslyn Johnson