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Jasper National Park wildfire expected to leave town on generator power for weeks

The Chetamon Mountain wildfire was started by a lightning strike on Sept. 1. (Parks Canada - image credit)
The Chetamon Mountain wildfire was started by a lightning strike on Sept. 1. (Parks Canada - image credit)

The Alberta mountain town of Jasper is expected to remain on generator power for weeks as an out-of-control wildfire continues to burn near the community.

The wildfire on Chetamon Mountain in Jasper National Park is now estimated to cover an area of around 5,500 hectares, Parks Canada said Wednesday morning.

The fire, located about 15 kilometres north of the town, is not a threat to Jasper or other nearby communities, officials say.

The mountain town, about 360 kilometres west of Edmonton, lost power early Monday morning. Atco is transitioning the town to backup generators but technical difficulties delayed efforts on Tuesday, meaning only half of Jasper had power restored by the evening.

The town, a popular tourist destination, has a population of just under 5,000 people.

Atco is expected to complete an analysis of the fire's impact on its main transmission lines by Wednesday evening. Eighteen structures have been damaged, according to Amanda Mattern, regional manager for Atco.

"We are weeks — not days — out from rebuilding that transmission infrastructure," she said during a Wednesday morning news availability.

Generator power is more unpredictable than the grid, meaning brown and blackouts are possible. Mayor Richard Ireland stressed the need to conserve power.

"We need help from all Jasper residents and all Jasper businesses to manage the power load," he said.

Ireland noted some residents have now been without power for 54 hours, pointing to Alberta Health Services for information on how to deal with perishable foods.

The municipality will be providing seven days of daily solid waste pickup due to the anticipated food spoilage.

Fire activity expected to increase

The estimated size of the fire has steadily decreased in the last few days after reaching a peak of around 8,000 hectares on Monday.

Katie Ellsworth, a fire management officer with Parks Canada, said cooler temperatures and some rain have helped, allowing crews to make progress in securing fire lines to the north and south.

"This downtrend in weather is not significant enough to consider this wildfire under control, and we do anticipate some increases in fire activity in the coming days."

Parks Canada
Parks Canada

She added that crews had taken the precautionary measure of installing a high volume sprinkler system along the community wildfire guard in Jasper.

Drones prohibited

During the news availability, Ellsworth emphasized that drones are illegal in national parks and can result in fines upwards of $25,000.

The use of drones in and around an active wildfire can compromise the safety of pilots and helicopter crews, she said.

Eight helicopters are currently assigned to bucketing water onto the fire in areas inaccessible to crews.

On Tuesday, two drone incidents ground those efforts to a halt. Helicopters were grounded for around an hour "in the middle of the peak burning period" until it could be confirmed the air space was clear, Ellsworth said.

"If this activity occurs during a very active wildfire day, it could result in an increase of fire behaviour. It can result in the injury or death of a firefighter," she said.

"And if there is an interaction between a drone and a helicopter while they're flying, it could be catastrophic to the pilot and to the helicopter."

Peter Evans/CBC
Peter Evans/CBC

Mark Tampos, one of the Jasper residents still without power, was at Jasper Activity Centre on Wednesday morning to charge his phone.

"You can't even cook — there's no power, no light," he said. "So it's a little tough."

Tampos is a cook at Loulou's and Smitty's restaurants, both of which remain without power.

Patrice Fortin, owner of the Fiddle River Restaurant, said he's been monitoring his restaurant's fridge and freezer since the power went out.

He said business this summer was good, hitting numbers similar to 2019.

The restaurateur is now considering getting a generator.

"If this happens again, I can hook the fridge and the freezer on the generator so I don't lose the inventory."