We had some excitement on the drive to Panorama, a ski resort 3.5 hours to the west of Calgary where Cory was doing a site visit for a construction project.
Normally the drive to Panorama is superb, the route takes you through Banff and Kootenay National Parks where blue skies and white capped-peaks make for perfect postcards almost every day of the year. We expected this trip to be different, as the haze from forest fires burning throughout the mountains was visible even in Calgary. Even so, we weren?t prepared for how thick the smoke became as we approached the parks and by the time we passed Banff we were enveloped in a smoky fog that hurt our eyes and drowned out any view of the mountains entirely.
Now, we knew that smoke from the forest fires burning all through Alberta and British Columbia was a likely accompaniment to portions of our trip, this year is the worst in decades for fires, with dry conditions and frequent lightning sparking hundreds of blazes on a daily basis. The McClure fire, currently 16,614 hectares in size dominated the news, where 6500 residents had been evacuated from the area north of Kamloops. While we were driving we heard the first indications of the devastation, the community of Lewis Creek destroyed by fire with around 35 homes completely burnt.
A large fire near Crowsnest Pass, just south of the parks had recently run its course and our first thought was that the smoke had drifted north from there. As we travelled further into the park, the smoke became heavier though, and past Cascade Mountain, the skies peeping over the mountain began to take on an orange glow. Further up the road, Castle Mountain was barely visible, with the smoke growing ever denser like an oceanic fog but sharp, biting at the eyes and tasting foul. Just before our junction, we spotted a sign that highway 93S was closed, the road to Panorama. Reaching the turnoff, now with a heavy scent of fire in the air, we spoke with park staff and found out that a fire within Kootenay Park was burning on both sides of the highway producing ash that was falling on Banff town site.
As the Kootenay fire did not endanger communities, and fires being needed natural events, the fire had not been as newsworthy as the many other fires displacing residents so we hadn?t even heard mention of it until reaching the park. We detoured up through Golden (see map) battling camper vans and increased traffic, finally reaching Panorama six hours after setting out from Calgary on the 3.5 hour drive. West winds blew the smoke east, so the skies here were clear, no evidence of the fires visible from our hotel room window where we watched children play in the resort pool and marvelled at the difference a mountain range could make.