Parks Canada has started work on a 49-hectare fire guard in Yoho National Park, near the Alberta-B.C. border.
The plan is to clear a section of forest next to Highway 1 north of Ross Lake to help protect the communities of Lake Louise, Alta., and Field, B.C. It's also intended to create habitat and wildlife corridors for deer, elk, bears and other critters.
Years of fire-suppression efforts in the national parks have led to dense forest heavy with fuel that can lead to intense, fast-spreading wildfires.
"Every year, we're having these fire seasons where we're having to have a reactive response to fires," said the park's wildfire risk reduction project manager, Shelley Tamelin. " We're trying to be proactive."
A map shows where crews will create the Ross Lake fire guard by removing trees that would otherwise serve as fuel for wildfires. (Submitted by Parks Canada)
The change will be noticeable. At its widest, this fire guard will be a tree-free area of about 100 U.S. football fields — that's 500 metres across at its widest, spanning a 1.1 kilometre length. But clearing out those trees means more sunlight for meadows and shrubs to grow.
Tamelin said the location was picked to take advantage of natural tree-free parts of the landscape. Features like avalanche chutes, scree slopes and lakes, stretching all the way down to the man-made roadways and rail lines, tie together a swath of open area. This reduces how many trees need to be felled.
"What we're seeking to do with this fire guard is to create a kind of peak to valley, valley to peak," Tamelin said.
Preliminary work means building temporary access roads before mechanical tree removal can start. Taking down trees has to wait until the soil freezes and snow falls to reduce impacts in the area.
Those driving on the highway might notice more noise and truck activity than normal near the Lake O'Hara turnoff from the Trans-Canada Highway.
Smoke will be another part of the equation, as some woody debris will be piled up and burned on-site, while other materials may be chipped and hauled off to dispose of.
While Parks Canada believes it is unlikely, smoke may affect traffic and cause some delays if visibility is affected on sections of the highway.
A pile of discarded wood burns next to logs cut from Protection Mountain. Similar burning will occur at the Ross Lake fire guard site. (Helen Pike/CBC)
"In the winter, we typically don't get as good venting conditions as we would during the summer, which means that smoke can sink towards the valley bottom," Tamelin said. "This guard itself is at the valley bottom, as is the Trans-Canada Highway and the rail line right beside it. So, you know, we are concerned that we could get smoke settling in the valley."
Keeping park users safe during the duration of the project will mean closing off 1.5 kilometres of the Great Divide Trail between the Lake O'Hara junction and 100 metres west of the Ross Lake Trail Junction. Public access there is prohibited, and that section of trail won't have set tracks for skiing this winter.
Tamelin is asking the public to keep up to date with closures in the area by checking the Yoho National Park bulletins. There could be other short-term closures.
Work should be complete by late March.