“The military is here, but it’s not gonna be here forever. And these fires are gonna go for a long period of time,” said Duane McKay, commissioner of emergency management and fire safety with Government Relations.
A call for 250 volunteer firefighters and labourers went out on Wednesday morning – exactly two weeks after the first general evacuations this year from La Ronge due to wildfires. Although people are volunteering to help, once hired, the positions will be paid.
“We want to give an opportunity for people who live in those affected areas in northern Saskatchewan. If they have that training obviously we’ll streamline them into the wildfire management branch so that they can put them on the line,” McKay said.
As of Wednesday, there were 113 fires burning in the province. Two fires threatening La Ronge and Pinehouse are both about five times the size of Saskatoon. The Egg fire near La Ronge remains 1.5 kilometres from the town’s edge despite increased fire activity.
Lac La Ronge Chief Tammy Cook-Searson was the first to share the requirements needed for those who want to help out, saying the priority is to employ as many local people that have knowledge, skills, and firefighting experience.
It includes a fitness test, blood pressure test. Wildland training and equipment will be provided, Cook-Searson wrote.
There’s good reason she led the call; Cook-Searson has been urging the government to allow willing volunteers from northern communities who know the area to join fire crews.
She said the text messages, e-mails, phone, and Facebook messages from people who want to help were constant.
“I knew I did have a commitment,” she said.
Premier Brad Wall echoed that sentiment in a conference on Wednesday afternoon.
“There’s a great deal of interest. You know, let’s identify those who have some training. If they need to augment it a little bit let’s get that done,” he said.
McKay further explained the government is providing administrative support to get people on the fire lines within 10 to 14 days, but the number of people needed and the call for volunteers was all Cook-Searson’s doing.
She said the last time the north faced fires like this, there were 2,000 people on the fire lines and that more people are needed. Cook-Searson shared this message with Wall when he visited the area last week.
“I said to the premier, this is an extreme circumstance that we’re in and we require extreme measures and we need to be flexible with the policies. And he had agreed with me at that time,” Cook-Searson said.
A week after speaking with Wall, with no forward movement, there was a breakthrough on Tuesday night, she said.
“I just want to thank Premier Brad Wall for addressing the concern that we raised about wanting more firefighters and wanting more of our people to be on the ground.”
Cook-Searson acknowledges screening will be necessary because “there’s gonna be a high demand and people wanting to work.”
At the end of the day, Cook-Searson’s goal is to get as many people involved as possible in taming the fires near communities so “then we’re able to bring people home safely.”
The e-mail for those interested in joining a volunteer firefighter or laborour is Bonnie.firstname.lastname@example.org.
La Ronge like a ghost town.
Only a handful of business have stayed open to provide the essentials for emergency crews fighting the fires.
Adam Leunge is the assistant manager at the Shell service station. They have stayed open to provide fuel for emergency vehicles.
“It’s just abandoned. Like there’s nobody on the streets except for the emergency personal driving around in vehicles.”
Born and raised in La Ronge, Leunge is used to dealing with forest fire smoke, but this year has been unprecedented .
He said they plan to stay open as long as they have fuel to sell, or if they get the order to leave.
“We’re ready to go if we have to leave,” adding they’ve had a couple close calls where they’ve had to go home to make sure they had everything ready.
While people have had to leave their homes in La Ronge, there are some smaller critters who have been rescued this week.
The town’s animal welfare has assisted more than 100 dogs, 23 cats, a turtle, a parrot and what is being called a “mean rooster.”
-With files from Brent Bosker, Trelle Kolojay and Karin Yeske.
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