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Controlled fire burns 'out of control' during women firefighters' training event at national park

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Screenshot of @ParksCanada Twitter account

A controlled fire at a national park in western Canada temporarily burned "out of control," even as participants from a women's firefighter training event were on hand to keep it contained.

Since May 1, dozens of firefighters and prospective firefighters have gathered at Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada, for the Women-in-Fire Training Exchange, better known as WTREX. WTREX is designed to provide an opportunity for people "of all different genders, ethnic, and racial backgrounds to explore the growing role of women in fire management" and to gain valuable "experience in wildland fire operations." Participation is capped at 35 enrollees, though an event flyer warns that acceptance into the program will be weighed with "diversity and inclusion goals in mind."

"This is about people who have not historically had opportunities, having opportunities, and who deserve to be there," claimed Banff’s fire and vegetation specialist, Jane Park.

Last Wednesday, two days into WTREX, Park and others had scheduled a prescribed burn for 28 hectares — just under 70 acres — of Banff National Park. The purpose of a prescribed burn is to rid the area of dead brush, which could ignite unexpectedly and cause a forest fire, and to stimulate growth of trees and other flora. Seizing on favorable conditions, officials ignited the controlled burn at the Compound Meadow on Wednesday morning.

However, around 4 p.m. that afternoon, the winds made "an unexpected shift in ... direction and speed," representatives from BNP claimed, causing the controlled fire to extend beyond "the predetermined boundary" to an area across Banff Avenue. According to reports, the fire then came dangerously close to the road, and "smoke & flames were highly visible" from the nearby town of Canmore. The Rocky Mountain Resort and Mount View Barbecue were both evacuated as a precaution, and some horses in local corrals owned by the Banff Light Horse Association were also relocated.

Sometime that evening, the fire was listed as "out of control," but thanks to a fortuitous rainfall and the help of five helicopters flown by pilots of unknown racial and gender identities, the fire was upgraded to "being held" by about 11 p.m. In all, three extra hectares — about 7.5 acres — were burned, affecting a local cemetery and a couple of horse-farm buildings. There are no known reports of human or animal injuries.

Though firefighters barely avoided disaster with the out-of-control fire, Park and other fire officials stand by the decision to conduct the controlled burn that day. "We were prepared for unexpected changes," Park insisted. "It was a little faster than anticipated, but we have to conduct our prescribed fires when the conditions are ready to meet our ecological objectives as well as our objectives to protect the community as well."

The Counter Signal contended that some of the WTREX participants may not have had the qualifications or the experience necessary to handle the challenge of a controlled burn. "WTREX’s call for applicants in the program indicates only introductory-level courses were needed to attend the training program," the outlet claimed.

Park, however, dismissed that assertion. "They are all certified firefighters from around the world who have their certifications," she said. "So the training was not specifically for them to get certified to be firefighters. Regardless of whether the prescribed fire had a burn window during this training or not, we would have had resources here — especially given where it is located."

The fire was officially determined to be "under control" by Saturday. WTREX 2023 in Canada is expected to conclude this Friday.

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