Illegal campfire sparks wildfire near Canmore

An illegal campfire that got out of hand just outside Canmore was quickly snuffed out by firefighters yesterday before it could grow any bigger.

Heavy smoke could be seen coming from the site off the Trans-Canada Highway and Highway 1A, south of the off-leash dog park, by the time Canmore Fire Rescue responded around 5 p.m. Wednesday (June 12).

“We were on scene in just a matter of minutes and discovered an illegal campsite, more so than just an illegal campfire,” said fire chief Walter Gahler. “It looked like it was set up for a longer stay.”

No one was on scene by the time firefighters arrived, however, there were signs of a “rapid evacuation of people.”

Gahler said there were coolers, hand tools and other items strewn about the area.

“For all we know, it was a really big fire, and as soon as they heard sirens, they left,” he said.

The fire, ignited in an illegal fire ring, had expanded to about four by four metres outside the ring and began spreading to nearby trees.

Canmore Fire Rescue responded with 14 firefighters and Alberta Wildfire was contacted early on.

“Alberta Wildfire got a helicopter in the air quickly and landed an initial attack crew that worked alongside our team, and we got it under control in a matter of an hour or so,” said Gahler.

While no campers were there when crews were responding to the fire, one person returned to the site later in the evening and was approached by Canmore RCMP. Charges may be pending.

The Outlook has reached out to local RCMP and will update this story.

Gahler said the incident serves to remind the public of the risk of illegal campfires.

“Right off the bat, illegal campfires are not allowed anywhere on municipal lands or provincial or national parks lands. They are not allowed at any time and place, regardless of fire conditions,” he said.

“Secondly, use of our backcountry and our wildland areas comes with responsibility, and that’s no open flames and no discarding burning or smoking materials, just as a general course of action.”

The fire was in Bow Valley Provincial Park in Kananaskis Country, within the Calgary Forest Area (CFA), which currently has a high fire danger risk, with some pockets of very high to extreme risk.

“Although some much needed precipitation fell in some areas of the CFA, it was very localized and only decreased the wildfire danger in the immediate area,” notes an Alberta Wildfire update for the area issued Tuesday (June 11).

“This week will bring more warm temperatures and dry conditions. The forecast is also calling for very strong winds. These conditions can help fuel fast moving wildfires.”

There are currently 15 active wildfires in the province, including carryovers from 2023. None are in the CFA. As of Jan. 1, there have been 49 recorded fires in the CFA, totalling 12.05 hectares burned.

As of Thursday, there were no fire advisories or bans in place for the Town of Canmore, however, Gahler said local fire services are watching conditions closely.

“We’re stable at the moment … But this is a great example that even though fire risk is relatively low around Canmore as wildfire goes, this recent fire was still enough to ignite surrounding bushes and trees, and left unchecked, could have turned into a significant issue.”

Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Rocky Mountain Outlook