Canadian soldiers helping fight the fires in the north have traded in their guns for water packs and fire axes.
Master Cpl. Joel Sutherland is among the 1,000 soldiers here from Alberta.
Following their training in Prince Albert, Sutherland’s unit was sent to La Ronge where they spent their first day on the lines working with local crews to protect cabins in Wadin Bay.
“Pretty shocking to see. There are a lot of cabins in the area that are completely burned out,” Sutherland said.
“The locals that we were working with there were fighting pretty hard to save their own cabins. They had multiple pumps and hoses all over the place.”
The wildfire situation is being held stable on Thursday. Speaking to media, officials said firefighters held the line against blazes threatening the communities of Pinehouse and La Ronge.
The main focus continues on La Ronge, Grandmother’s Bay, Sucker River, Wadin Bay.
Sutherland and his crew were kept busy handling multiple fires, including one flare up that came within 100 meters of several cabins.
“Pretty frantic for a while. We managed to push it back,” he said.
Not only are soldiers helping fight the fires, they’re living around them.
Sutherland said their unit set up camp next to the lake. Although they have no idea how long they will be there, he said they are prepared for the long haul.
“We can wash up in stuff in the lake. We kind of set up a little CQ area where we have a mobile mess tent for food and we’re sleeping out of tents.”
Thursday’s weather provided a bit of relief. Wind cleared enough smoke to allow the full complement of 54 helicopters and 23 airplanes to be brought to bear on the situation.
That includes another pair of water-bombers that arrived from Ontario. Officials said the province is continuing to seek out more resources from across the country, as well as from the United States.
The federal government is also reported to be in communication with Mexico, New Zealand and Australia. Any rescources from those countries would get deployed according to needs across Western Canada, as wildfires remain a concern in British Colombia and Alberta.
The province estimates that between 10,000 and 14,000 people have been displaced, 7,903 people are getting assistance from Social Services (Prince Albert 3,154, Saskatoon 2,781, Regina 893, Cold Lake 675, and North Battleford 400).
There were 97 evacuees sent home to Sturgeon Lake, 60 to Little Red River Indian Reserve and 41 to Wahpeton Dakota Nation.
Criteria for evacuees to be allowed back home:
– No fire threat
– Smoke is not a health risk
– Safe water
– Medical staff available
– Essential services, such as phone and power, available
Fires could burn till snowfall
There are 118 active wildfires reported in the province and 54 of those are in the La Ronge region. Duane McKay of the Ministry of Government Relations said some of those not threatening communities or infrastructure could burn well into the fall, possibly even until the first snowfall.
Brad Wall doesn’t think the fires will burn until winter.
“I’m cautiously optimistic we’re going to see a victory on this and it won’t be winter,” Premier Brad Wall said Thursday. “We’re leaving no stone unturned to try and find resources wherever they may exist, but the fire situation right now is stable.”
Despite the work to find resources and volunteers, Wall said the province does not know how much the fires will end up costing taxpayers, but he hopes to have a balanced budget.
“We’ll know all those numbers when they come in,” he said. “Our priority has to be people right now, property and putting out the fires.”
Wall said the province along with the federal ministry of public safety and the RCMP have daily operations calls. He said federal funds are available when the province requires them.
A fire in the Buffalo Narrows area threatened a road to Dillon and a number of people chose to leave the area.
McKay said a call for 250 volunteer firefighters saw 600 people respond. He said they are working out how many they’ll take and how to get them trained and working as soon as possible. McKay said the idea is to eventually train up enough people to replace personnel from the military that have been brought in.
There are 400 soldiers on the ground helping with firefighting efforts. They’ve been split between the La Ronge area and the area around Weyakwin and Montreal Lake.
The Premier has asked provincial government officials to start preparing requests to the federal government.
Wall said the province is not yet focused on what will soon be an onslaught of Provincial Disaster Assistance Program applications from evacuees and those affected by the fire.
“We’re not going to worry about those applications right now. We’re going to work to protect people and property first,” he said.
Sutherland said they’ve been well received in the community. They are greeted with smiles everywhere they go and after 15-hours on the front lines Wednesday, the Co-op handed out fresh fruit and vegetables to weary soldiers. Sutherland said he expected an even longer day Thursday.
“If it’s needed, we’ll do what’s necessary.”
There have been 601 fires this year in Saskatchewan.
-with files from News Talk Radio’s Brent Bosker and Bryn Levy
Follow on Twitter: @CKOMNews