Northern Sask. communities evacuate under wildfire threat

·3 min read

Communities in Northern Saskatchewan are evacuating as wildfires edge closer.

As of Monday, 91 fires were considered active in the province, bringing this year's total to 312 so far. That's more than 100 over the five-year average, said Steve Roberts, vice-president of operations for the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency.

Thirty-three of the 91 active fires are being suppressed but are considered likely to grow. For another 13, the province's efforts were focusing on protecting property and infrastructure as of Monday morning, a provincial news release said.

A wildfire covering roughly 5,700 hectares as of Sunday in the northwest has forced the residents of St. George's Hill and Buffalo River Dene Nation to leave. Fire crews are fighting the blaze with heavy equipment and helicopter and air tanker support, a provincial news release said.

Community members have taken shelter in North Battleford and Lloydminster, said Joan Hrycyk, the SPSA's director of emergency and crisis support.

Merle Catarat, who is coordinating the First Nation's response, said evacuations began on Saturday.

Catarat estimates about 90 per cent of the roughly 600 people living on-reserve have left. He and other band members have stayed behind, keeping watch on neighbours' homes and bringing food and water for local pets.

As community members wait to return, Catarat is hoping the fire doesn't get any nearer to their homes.

"It depends what the wind does," he said.

Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation was also evacuating its community of Southend on Monday, with residents planning to take shelter in Prince Albert and Saskatoon, according to a video Chief Karen Bird posted on social media.

In the video, Bird told residents that helicopter support would be available for convoys leaving the community.

She asked all band members to register at the band office, regardless of whether they planned to join the evacuation. One bus convoy left on Sunday night and a second was scheduled to leave on Monday morning.

Elders were picked up at their homes, with plans to leave from the band office, Bird said. The Canadian Red Cross is supporting the evacuation.

While fire doesn't present a direct threat to the community, Lac La Ronge Indian Band also issued a voluntary evacuation notice for its community of Grandmother's Bay, band councillor Gerald McKenzie said. The notice applies to newborn children, elders with limited mobility and people with breathing problems or asthma.

Due to the persisting risk of COVID-19, Roberts said the province is taking precautions like ensuring families stay together and limiting who can enter hotel rooms when evacuating.

He said busses were to be cleaned between group evacuations, and groups would be separated to socially distance inside the vehicles.

Outside of COVID-19 plans, Roberts said a previously instituted fire ban will stay in place. While the province battles those wildfires, there's no current plan to get help from other jurisdictions in the U.S. and Canada who are beating back their own blazes, he added.

"Resources across Canada are currently stretched."

Nick Pearce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix

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