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Scars of 2017 wildfire still evident in Waterton park as rebuild continues

Riders head out form Alpine Stables for a trail ride after a wildfire two years ago in Waterton National Park, Alta., Friday, Aug. 9, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Deb Watson returned to her family’s trail-riding business after the Waterton wildfire to find little more than a pop machine melted into a bubbly puddle with coins inside fused together.

“It wasn’t a good burn-back-the-brush kind of fire,” says Watson, sitting on a picnic bench at the temporary location of Alpine Stables in Waterton Lakes National Park.

The business has offered horseback riding excursions for about half a century in the southwestern Alberta park known for its stunning Rocky Mountain vistas, plentiful wildlife and glimmering lakes.

Alpine Stables owner Deb Watson pets Zamboni at the riding centre’s temporary facility after a wildfire two years ago in Waterton National Park, Alta., Friday, Aug. 9, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

READ MORE: Southern Alberta’s Rocking Heart Ranch still rebuilding 2 years after Waterton wildfire

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A fire sparked by a lightning strike in British Columbia and fuelled by dry, windy weather forced everyone out of Waterton on Sept. 8, 2017, and spread into the park three days later. The main townsite, including the historic Prince of Wales Hotel, was unscathed.

Nearly 40 per cent of the park burned, including several Parks Canada properties. All of Alpine’s 70 or so horses were taken to safety well before the business on Parks Canada land burned to the ground.

Alpine Stables has just over half as many horses this summer as it did before the fire. It’s operating out of a modest shed at a golf course across the road from its longtime location.

Workers put the finishing touches on Alpine Stables after a wildfire destroyed the original stable two years ago in Waterton National Park, Alta., Friday, Aug. 9, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Watson is grateful her family has been able to keep the business open, but she’s antsy to return to its old spot, where Parks Canada aims to complete a brand new stable and staff housing this fall.

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“It’s a beautiful building, but what we’re really going to miss is all the trees, the greenery in the back,” she said. “It’s not what my dad built and what he designed.”

Parks Canada has embarked on a multi-year rebuilding plan, helped along by nearly $21 million in federal funding announced in January.

Along with Alpine Stables, the park expects to reopen the popular Bear’s Hump hiking trail and scenic Red Rock parkway to motor vehicles this year. Red Rock has been fully open to foot and bike traffic since late June and most hiking trails with access from there are open.

READ MORE: Over a third of youths in Fort McMurray show signs of PTSD in wake of 2016 wildfire disaster: researchers

The more complex job to restore the Akamina Parkway, the road leading to the popular Cameron Lake day-use area, is expected to be finished in 2021. The fire burned trees so deeply that rocky slopes need to be stabilized to make the road safe. Burned guardrails need replacing and new culverts are needed.

The Akamina Parkway has been open to foot and bike traffic off and on since last November, but is to close again Sept. 9 until the end of the year for construction.

“We’re taking every opportunity to offer visitors chances to get up to places as the construction allows,” said park superintendent Sal Rasheed.

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Waterton Park warden Salman Rasheed sees new life for the park after a wildfire two years ago in Waterton National Park, Alta., Friday, Aug. 9, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

The Crandell Mountain campground, levelled in the fire, won’t reopen until 2022. Where the old visitor’s centre once stood is a field of tall grass. There’s a temporary centre in town by a post office and the new complex is expected to be done in the spring of 2021.

“Working in Waterton is an interesting challenge,” said Rasheed. “It gets incredibly windy down here and in southern Alberta it can snow in any month of the year. And so we lost a bit of time early on in the season with snow and wind … But in the grand scheme of things, everything is on schedule.”

READ MORE: Mother Nature will restore Waterton forest after wildfire but it could take decades: expert

While the park has had some slow months, Rasheed figures visits are on par with pre-fire levels.

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Business has been booming at Pat’s Rentals as visitors look to explore the parkways on electric bikes with the perk of not having to dodge cars.

Jordan Wammes, whose family owns the business, said it started the spring with six e-bikes and had 20 by August.

“It’s starting to bounce back,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of rejuvenation, a lot of revisitation from folks who haven’t been back since the fire.”

Trees surrounding the Prince of Wales Hotel start to re-grow after a wildfire two years ago in Waterton National Park, Alta., Friday, Aug. 9, 2019.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Lockey Craig, whose company Waymarker Hospitality owns and operates hotels and restaurants in town, said business has been slower, especially in the shoulder season.

He believes it has a lot to do with limited backcountry hiking options after the fire. He hopes that will turn around soon.

“I’m frustrated with how slow it has been,” he said of the road construction.

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But he also understands why it’s important to get the work done right.

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