'Looks a bit like hell': Wildfire destroys Alberta ranch

A rancher in southwestern Alberta is thankful for the clothes on his back — and four horses who managed to escape a locked barn — after getting 20 minutes' notice to flee the wildfire that reduced his home and business of 31 years to blackened rubble. 

The blackened rubble of Jim Garner's home and business for 31 years, tucked between Waterton Lakes National Park and a river, still smouldered Tuesday. Nearby, planes dropped water on a fire that keeps growing.

"We're living in heaven on Earth. Right now, it looks a bit like hell," Garner, 73, told theCalgary Eyeopener.

An out-of-control wildfire has forced hundreds from their homes — some with only a few minutes' notice on Monday night. The Kenow wildfire has torn through Waterton Lakes National Park and into parts of the townsite.

Firefighters are struggling to control the 20,000-hectare fire in the tinder-dry and extremely windy conditions. The wildfire grew about 50 per cent overnight Monday, officials said.

Conditions changed suddenly in Garner's neighbourhood, where he said he wasn't expecting to be in danger. He was hoping to catch the end of Monday night's football game.

"I come home and I just see this wall of fire. I said, 'Oh my God, we gotta get out of here.'"

'Hell and back'

His horses survived, but he doesn't know how.

"I'm not a real religious man, but something helped us last night," Garner said.

He had lain awake last night worrying about the four stallions he left locked in the barn in the rush to evacuate.

When Garner was able to return on Tuesday, he found they'd somehow escaped.

"They've gone through hell and back," Garner said.

Garner's home and business, called Rocking Heart Ranch, are flattened. The hay bales are black and the arena is gone.

The shop is still standing, and a few boats were saved by the protection of a gravel pit.

The longtime rancher said his family received only 20 minutes' notice to evacuate. At that time, he said, the fire was only 23 kilometres from his home.

He's critical of the fire suppression response, and said he and neighbours should have been given more time. He's calling for a public inquiry, though he noted that what burned was only "material things."

"We're literally wearing the clothes on our back. I'm not complaining, I'm not crying here," he said. "We will succeed. We're Garners."

- With files from Jennifer Keene and the Calgary Eyeopener