Wildfires spread across northern Saskatchewan after evacuations
July 15, 2021 By Nick Pearce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Starphoenix
Weather is sparking new wildfire worries for communities in northern Saskatchewan.
A Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency advisory issued Wednesday morning said the smoke blowing off dozens of wildfires is lowering visibility and reducing the region’s air quality.
The SPSA said winds are also shifting. That improves air quality in central Saskatchewan, but sends smoke north toward communities like Beauval, which are managing their own wildfire threats.
Symptoms residents could experience include increased coughing, throat irritation, headaches or shortness of breath. Children, seniors, and people with cardiovascular or lung disease, such as asthma, are especially at risk, the advisory said.
A heat advisory is also in place in the north. Daytime high temperatures are ranging from 29 to 32 C, with overnight lows near 20 C, it added.
A provincial fire ban will remain in place for up to five more days, said Steve Roberts, the SPSA’s vice-president of operations.
Lac La Ronge Indian Band continues a voluntary evacuation of Grandmother’s Bay, said the band’s emergency coordinator, Maurice Ratt. That applies to vulnerable people like elders and those with respiratory problems.
While there’s no immediate threat to the community, Ratt said he has also alerted Stanley Mission that a voluntary evacuation is possible.
About 114 residents have left so far, but Ratt is eyeing developing smoke and highway conditions.
“We’re looking at the smoke situation for each community,” he said. “If the smoke gets too thick for Stanley Misson, we’ll definitely move out the priority groups.”
Roberts said heavy equipment and fire crews are fighting the blazes near Stanley Mission and Grandmother’s Bay.
He said the SPSA is reaching out to other jurisdictions to see what’s available while provincial crews are fully engaged in forest fires.
The province has about 240 firefighting personnel, about 80 five-person crews positioned throughout the north, and is in the process of hiring local firefighters to offer support, Roberts said.
Other northern Saskatchewan communities have been forced to evacuate. People from Buffalo River Dene Nation, including Dillon, and St. George’s Hill have primarily taken shelter in North Battleford and Lloydminster. There are roughly 48 evacuees in North Battleford, said Joan Hrycyk, the SPSA’s director of emergency and crisis support.
The Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation community of Southend has directed its residents to Prince Albert and Saskatoon.
On social media, PBCN Chief Karen Bird, who recently lost her personal cabin to a fire, took to a helicopter to record the scope of the blaze on Tuesday (view video).
As of Wednesday morning, the SPSA was reporting 123 active fires in the province. Thirty-two were not contained. Suppression actions are taking place, but the fires are expected to grow in size.
Twenty-three of the fires are active, and action is focused on protecting cabins and infrastructure. Eight of the fires are contained and are not expected to grow in size. There are 60 fires being monitored.
There have been 354 fires so far this year, compared to a five-year average of 208.
As those fires burn, Roberts said evacuated residents will have to wait for improved conditions and approval from leaders before coming home.
“Once community leaders decide they’re comfortable … they’ll make the decision to repatriate.”