The federal minister of public safety and emergency preparedness, made his first ever trip to Prince Albert to assess firefighting efforts Thursday.
Steven Blaney’s visit comes after the federal government sent 1,000 Canadian soldiers earlier this week to help fight the 118 wildfires in Northern Saskatchewan.
After visiting makeshift shelters in the province, Blaney said people have really stepped up to help evacuees, especially with the Red Cross coming from all over the country to help.
“At this point in time, our priority is really the safety of the citizens of northern Saskatchewan,” he said. “I’ve seen this morning a very well organized structure to welcome families.”
According to Blaney, the priority of the government is to fully support of the effort of the Saskatchewan government and to support the community.
“We are here and we are going to be ready,” Blaney said. “This situation could go for a while, but I just want to reassure, with the support of the Canadian Armed Forces, (National Defence and Multiculturalism) Minister (Jason) Kenney is fully behind the troops.”
He said they were briefed by a colonel who gave an overview of military involvement.
“The first firefighters have already been here for six weeks, and it’s tough,” said Blaney. “What I’m pleased to see is the integration of the Canadian Armed Forces with the skilled, expert firefighters.”
Blaney said they aren’t making the decisions in terms of where the troops are hitting the fire lines.
“We are taking our marching orders from the Government of Saskatchewan,” he said.
When asked about if the Canadian Government is prepared to help fund firefighting efforts, Blaney said they have a disaster funding agreement which still stands and has been in place for a decade.
Next, he said he’ll head to La Ronge to check out the situation. The federal government is also monitoring the fires in Alberta and B.C. and will assist if needed there.
Jim Reiter, minister of government relations in Saskatchewan said the response from the Canadian government has been ‘incredible’. He also said he’s impressed with how well the Canadian Military and Wildfire Management have integrated.
“Certainly people are the most important issue here,” Reiter said. “With the military arriving, it’s a relief, frankly.”
Reiter visited evacuation centres in Prince Albert, Saskatoon, Regina and even Cold Lake, Alta. The number of wildfire evacuees is estimated between 10,000 and 14,000.
“We understand the stress that they’re going through,” Reiter said. “My heart goes out to them, it’s difficult for them but, you know, they’re being very well cared for, they’re in good facilities.”
Reiter said Red Cross has offered mental health counselling at many facilities. He also said evacuees must be patient and remember firefighters are working as quick as they can so that people can return home as soon as possible.
Touching on recent information on fires lasting until winter, Reiter acknowledged weather has a huge impact on fire activity.
“We hope it doesn’t take that long,” he said. “A great rain would be immensely helpful.”
Steve Roberts, executive director of wildfire management for the ministry of environment said they likely won’t be able to cool every hectare of every fire. This means, they’ll eventually rely on the cooler fall weather to completely snub fires.
Roberts said they’ll continue to do what they can, keeping up with intensive planning.
“We’re halfway through the fire season,” he said.
With hundreds of volunteer firefighters entering condensed five day training, Roberts said it’s important everyone takes the most thorough training possible.
“We cannot just have a volunteer without training, including safety training, go out on the fire lines. It just is not safe for them,” he said.
On Tuesday the province put out a call for 250 volunteer and received more than 600 responses. They are now determining who is eligible. Roberts is still unsure whether a call for more volunteers will be put out.
“We can only integrate work forces that we can support, supply and protect from these wildfires,” he said.
They need enough air support and personal tools to issue to each firefighter. So far, people have been stepping up locally, provincially and there have even been international offers of assistance. Roberts said they will go through offers, assess them and contact people based on convenience and availability.
Volunteers currently in training will be moved into paid positions on the front fire lines as soon as their training sessions are complete.
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