WATERTON, Alta. – Members of a southern Alberta ranching family say they will rebuild after a wildfire swept through their property just outside Waterton Lakes National Park.
“We’ll get everything back up and running as soon as we possibly can and we’ll continue to ranch in that area for many more generations,” said Melody Garner-Skiba, who has considered the Rocking Heart Ranch home since she was nine years old.
Her father, former Saskatchewan politician Jim Garner, and his wife Angel bought the horse ranch more than three decades ago.
The red log house, feed yard, barn and arena were destroyed. The only thing left standing is a shop housing farm equipment and supplies that happened to be surrounded by gravel.
Garner-Skiba said the family has decided that everything will be rebuilt.
“This has typically always been our motto: when you knock a Garner down, we just come back up swinging a little harder.”
A grass fire ignited just outside the north part of the park on Monday night, which authorities have said may have been sparked by a blowing ember from the Kenow wildfire burning to the southwest.
Garner-Skiba said just minutes after her father told her the fire was 20 kilometres away and everything was fine, he called back to say he was ordered to leave immediately.
“What happened? How did this come on so quickly?,” Garner-Skiba recalled wondering.
Her niece, Sierra Garner, said she was awoken Monday night with news her grandpa and nana were under an evacuation order.
The two women and some other family members were able to travel from Lethbridge to check on the ranch Tuesday morning.
“There was not a lot left,” Garner, 20, said Wednesday.
Jim and Angel’s children and grandchildren regularly help out on the ranch in their spare time.
Treasured family keepsakes inside the house were destroyed.
“We have this old cowboy hat that was my great-great grandpa’s. That’s burned down,” said Garner.
Garner-Skiba added that walls of the house were lined with family photos dating back more than a century and with Jim’s hunting trophies.
The pair said the family is grateful everyone got out safely and none of the 100 or so horses on the ranch was hurt.
“We went back in on Tuesday expecting to see actually corpses of horses and we’d actually taken our guns because we thought we would have to put some animals down because they were caught in the fire,” Garner-Skiba said.
Her niece said material items can be replaced.
“We’ll get a new house, we’ll get a new barn, arena,” she said. “We’ll rebuild everything. But if we would have lost any lives, that would have been a different story, and thank gosh we didn’t.”
Garner said her grandparents are holding up well.
“I’ve got very strong grandparents,” she said. “They’re doing OK. Without our family here, we wouldn’t be as calm and collected as we are because we all support each other.”
The Alberta government says around 500 people are under evacuation order in the Waterton Lakes National Park townsite and parts of Cardston County, the Municipal District of Pincher Creek. The Blood reserve, a First Nations community southwest of Lethbridge lifted its evacuation order on Wednesday afternoon.
The wildfire was estimated at 440 square kilometres on Wednesday, up from 114 square kilometres two days earlier.
The fire has not spread into the national park’s townsite, but has destroyed its visitor centre and other buildings.
Parks Canada said Wednesday the townsite was not under immediate threat, but the fire was still active in the area.
It said cooler temperatures, higher relative humidity and northeast winds were in the forecast and that rain later in the evening could provide some relief.
However, the agency cautioned that intense fire behaviour is still possible in these dry conditions.
The Municipal District of Pincher Creek said Wednesday that the fire destroyed five homes, five outbuildings, two large sheds and one bridge on private property. As well, fence lines, hay and power lines burned.
— By Lauren Krugel in Calgary
Note to readers: This is a corrected story; an earlier version incorrectly said the fire had early been 114 thousand square kilometres