September 12, 2017 1:37 pm
Updated: September 13, 2017 1:23 am

Waterton fire: A look at the pristine hamlet threatened by wildfire

WATCH: Pall of smoke hangs over Waterton National Park as wildfire continues to burn

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally said the Kenow fire may have started in Flathead Valley in Montana, which was incorrect. The fire may have started in the Flathead Valley in B.C. The article also originally said witnesses told Global News they believe the fire started on CFB Suffield, which was incorrect. A fire in the area of CFB Suffield occurred in another part of the province and was not related to the Waterton-area fires.

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Waterton Park, Alta. bills itself as “a place where natural wonder, history and people come together in a profoundly beautiful way.”

With a population of just over 100 according to Statistics Canada’s 2016 census, the town, commonly known simply as Waterton, is small by any measure — but as its website says, “we like it that way.”

But today, the townsite and surrounding Waterton Lakes National Park stand threatened by the raging Waterton Lakes Kenow fire.

READ MORE: Southern Alberta wildfire updates: the latest info on the Waterton Lakes Kenow fire

The fire may have been caused by a lightning strike in the Flathead Valley in British Columbia two weeks ago.

The fire has since crossed into Waterton Lakes National Park. The Waterton townsite was placed under a mandatory evacuation order Friday afternoon, with all highways within the national park closed.

WATCH: Don’t expect Mother Nature to help out with Waterton fire in next 48 hours

Multiple sources tell Global News at least one building has already been destroyed in the fire. Video posted on social media Tuesday shows the main park visitor centre burned to the ground. Parks Canada hasn’t confirmed this information.

WATCH: Firefighters working ‘hearts out’ battling Waterton wildfire

On Monday, the owner of a local bed and breakfast told Global News that the fire could wipe out business in the area if it reaches the townsite.

READ MORE: Waterton-area business opens doors for evacuees amid potentially devastating fire situation

“If Waterton happened to burn down, most businesses in this area would be dead,” said Josh Creason, one of the operators of the Rocky Ridge Country Lodge. “It will be a sad day if it reaches too much of Waterton.”

“It will take years to get it back to where it was if it destroys the hikes or into the town site and it will affect a lot of people.”

A nature tourism hotspot

Located in the Rockies in the southwest corner of Alberta, the 505 square-kilometre Waterton Lakes National Park is an official UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, with the town of Waterton serving as the park’s main townsite.

A hiking, fishing and windsurfing hotspot, Watertown is also renowned for its nature-focused festivals, including the Waterton Wildflower Festival and Waterton Wildlife Weekend. This year’s wildlife weekend event had to be cancelled, due to the fire and subsequent evacuation order.

Here’s a look at the history of Waterton:

The town takes its name from the Waterton Lakes, named after the 18th century English conservationist Sir Charles Waterton. Sir Waterton never visited the area himself; the lake’s name was chosen by naturalist and explorer Thomas Blakiston, a keen admirer of Sir Waterton’s work as a pioneering conservationist.

According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, Blakiston came upon the lakes in 1858 when exploring and mapping the Kootenai Pass in B.C.

WATCH: Crews work to protect Waterton Lakes National Park history as wildfire spreads closer

Blakiston also made sure to give himself a pat on the back however, naming the highest peak in Waterton Lakes National Park after himself, according to the book In Plain Sight: Exploring the Natural Wonders of Southern Alberta.

The 2,910-metre Mount Blakiston is situated south of Blakiston Creek, 11 kilometres away from the idyllic Waterton Lakes Golf Course.

Indigenous inhabitants of Waterton

But the history of Waterton extends thousands of years before its discovery by English explorers.

According to the town’s website, the oldest known inhabitants of the region were the Upper Kootenai and Blackfoot peoples. In the period following the most recent Ice Age, which ended around 11,500 years ago, the Upper Kootenai regularly traversed over to what is now Blakiston Valley in search of bison.

WATCH: Waterton wildfire ‘extraordinary’ situation: McKenna

Fast-forward to the early 19th century however, and these bison hunts were halted due to repeated conflict with the Blackfoot.

Today, the Kootenai in Canada live in southeastern B.C., and the Blackfoot on the Bow River near Calgary.

Western Canada’s first oil well

In 1902, the Rocky Mountain Development Company became the first to tap into Waterton’s oil reserves, via the Lineham Discovery Well.

The well’s early success prompted the installation of nearly 25 more wells, according to Parks Canada. However, most of the wells were abandoned in within only six years due to technical problems and low yield.

In 1965, the Canadian government officially designated the Lineham Discovery Well the “First Oil Well in Western Canada.” The site is now home to a monument and National Historic Site.

Today, oil giant Shell maintains a gas production facility called the Waterton Gas Complex in Pincher Creek, located 30 kilometres north of the Waterton townsite.

Evacuation orders in place

The Municipal District of Pincher Creek is one of numerous areas placed under a mandatory evacuation notice, others being Cardston County, The Blood Tribe reserve and all areas of Waterton Lakes National Park, including the Waterton townsite.

Parks Canada has instructed residents of the area to leave immediately.

For more information, contact the Parks Canada information line at 403-859-5109.

— With files from Global News reporters Melissa Gilligan, Erika Tucker and Joel Senick.

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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