By: Glenn Hicks
As 2017 draws to a close, paNOW is taking a look back on the most important and impactful stories of the year, selected by our reporters and editorial staff.
Forest fire season came late to the region in 2017. But when it did it brought some serious and large blazes close to northern communities, and brought thousands of evacuees into Prince Albert to escape the immediate danger and the smoke.
The first sign of trouble came Aug. 29 when two wildfires that had been burning for a number of days forced the closure of Highway 106 east of Highway 135. Officials said communities were not immediately threatened but heavy smoke was the concern and the communities of Sandy Bay and Pelican Narrows were partially evacuated. Elders and residents with medical conditions were transported to Saskatoon and Prince Albert, especially the chronic cases, which were given priority.
Also the staff still in place at the resort community of Jan Lake were evacuated.
Fires spark larger exodus
Within 24 hours the situation would become far more serious and the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation leadership issued a mandatory evacuation order. Many residents were forced to flee their homes as the three major wildfires in the region grew.
Prince Albert hotels were quickly filled to capacity with evacuees from Pelican Narrows and Sandy Bay.
Reynold Sewap was among those who decided to help his family get out. He said the entire community was covered in smoke as of the previous week when he went up there to visit
“When we were in Pelican it was smoky every day. You could see the fires flaring up and burning closer and closer to Pelican,” he said.
Sewap, from Prince Albert, said he was helping accommodate his family and friends in the city, and did not sound very hopeful about the situation.
“I’m glad that they’re here safe, but for their homes and my home back in Pelican it’s scary because I don’t know if I’m going to be able to go back to the house,” he said. “It’s going to be a great loss for me and all the community members. They’re going to lose all their possessions and all their memories that they have in their houses… they’ll have nothing to fall back on.” At that stage of developments the potential of significant property damage loomed and the province deployed all available firefighting assets to the region.
Emergency Social Services (ESS) said 640 of the near 1,600 total evacuees had registered in P.A. Over 800 were in Saskatoon.
A large contingent came to P.A. by bus and private vehicle, under escort Aug. 30. Of those 640, over 500 were staying in hotels and another 100 were with friends and family.
Deanna Valentine with ESS said her agency could no longer accommodate any more evacuees in P.A.
“At this point we are considering P.A. at capacity,” she said in a conference call. “If there are further residents coming out of their homes we would consider accommodating them in Saskatoon.”
Despite the mandatory evacuation order it was not being enforced by officials because ultimately that choice was being left to individuals. An estimated 1,000 people remained in the community as wildfire crews battled the three uncontrolled blazes in the area. The southern flank of one of the fires burning closest to Pelican Narrows was about three kilometers North of the community.
Evacuation numbers increase amidst “very dynamic wildfire situation”
By Sept. 2 over 2,300 residents were forced from their homes in the communities of Pelican Narrows, Birch Portage, Jan Lake and Sandy Bay. Over 1,300 of those were staying in Prince Albert.
Officials labelled the wildfire situation as stable with only 300 individuals remaining in Pelican Narrows.
Three days later, as the trident of uncontrolled blazes grew further, officials said the situation in the region remained challenging, although they insisted there was no escalation in the threat to the community.
“The weather has been hot and dry and it looks like that’s what we’re going to see over the next few days,” Duane McKay the Commissioner of Fire Safety said in a provincial media call. “That creates a very dynamic situation for Pelican Narrows.”
McKay described the threat level across the province as “very, very high.”
The fire burning closest to Pelican Narrows was accurately measured as being within three kilometres of the community, but Steve Roberts with Wildfire Management did not categorize the situation as more threatening than before.
“No. That fire has not moved in that location. It has been the same distance from the community for well over a week,” he said.
The so-called Preston blaze was now being labelled a “direct fire threat.” It was a smoke threat the previous week.
“We have secured the [south] flank,” Roberts said, “but we have concerns. The fire is adjacent to the community.”
Roberts said firefighters were successful in protecting values such as infrastructure in the community.
However, there were reports of some remote cabins being lost.
P.A. “feels the strain”
For the next week it appeared touch and go whether the blazes would enter the affected communities but by Monday Sept. 11 officials said they had passed an important test of their control efforts. However, ever-changing wind direction and hot weather continued to pose a challenge.
“This weekend was a big test for us and we were extremely successful with the work that’s been done [on protecting infrastructure and the communities],” Steve Roberts with Wildfire Management said. Even in light of the tough weather challenges this weekend, Roberts said, “we were able to protect those areas that pose the biggest risk.”
Two of the three wildfires – the Granite Fire and Preston Fire – grew to 107,000 hectares and 47,000 hectares respectively. However officials stressed there was no increase in threat.
But Prince Albert was now under strain with the amount of evacuees being accommodated in the city. There were an extra 1,700 people in P.A. 825 of the total evacuated residents were in Saskatoon.
Deanna Valentine with Emergency Social Services said they would ask evacuees in P.A. to consider moving to hotels in Saskatoon to help “equalize” the stresses.
“It does put stress on the health care system [in P.A.] and the hotels which have to increase everything, from laundry, to meals and other services,” she said.
Most evacuees were in Prince Albert to be closer to family and friends.
However, Jamie McGuin, the chair of Prince Albert’s hospitality association, said hotel managers he spoke to in the city disagreed with the assessment the city was under strain from all the evacuees.
“I don’t think there’s any of our members that are unhappy these folks are here,” McGuin said. He added evacuees brought in revenue by filling up hotels, shopping, eating out, etc.
“It’s an unfortunate situation as to why they’re here, but it certainly has a positive economic impact while they’re here,” he said.
McGuin said normally, that time of year would be slower-paced. The standard occupancy rate is 50 to 55 per cent on average, whereas their businesses were 85-90 per cent occupied.
Dramatic video footage released
Two weeks into the wildfire situation the public got a good look at what crews had been dealing with when the Ministry of Environment’s Wildfire Management branch released dramatic footage. It showed an aerial ignition that occurred on Sept. 6. The ministry stressed the video did not indicate current wildfire behavior or conditions.
A video from the Ministry of Environment’s Wildfire Management branch shows an aerial ignition that occurred on Sept. 6, 2017.
General evacuation order lifted
On Sept. 13 most affected residents received the news they’d been waiting for. With continued gains made by fire crews amidst improving weather conditions the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation lifted an evacuation order allowing evacuees from the Pelican Narrows wildfires to return home.
Due to air quality concerns, the rescindment was only for community members and priority three persons. The order remained in place for priority one and two persons, or the elderly, children, pregnant women and those with breathing or general health issues.
Mother nature gives wildfire crews massive helping hand
At long last a clear change in the weather helped crews make continued progress to secure the wildfires burning in the area. Steve Roberts with Wildfire Management said good rainfall was helping to keep gains made and to reduce smoke.
“We’ve finally received some significant precipitation; over 20 millimeters in the last 24 hours over that whole Pelican Narrows area,” Roberts said.
He said crews knew they could make gains and keep them, which is very different to what they had to deal with during the peak fire activity earlier.
“When fires are really active you can use bulldozers, crews, air tankers and hold the line and then have a weather event appear the next day and basically [move the fire] beyond that and so you start all over,” Roberts said, adding that was no longer the case.
The big Preston and Granite fires were now 30 per cent contained and the smoke had diminished.
All clear for everyone to return home
On Sept. 20 the chief of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation lifted the evacuation order for the remaining residents of Pelican Narrows.
Chief Peter A. Beatty told the elderly, those with chronic breathing conditions, and pregnant women they were free to return home.
Evacuees remaining in Prince Albert with their own transportation were instructed to come and collect gas vouchers. Evacuees still in Saskatoon could do the same there. A total of 2,700 people registered as evacuees during the wildfires. Around 2,000 were in P.A. as many affected residents came to the city in anticipation of the repatriation.
No ‘let it burn’ policy
Weeks after the threat had subsided the province had to refute accusations of a ‘let it burn’ policy regarding the handling of wildfires.
Indigenous leaders were critical about a policy that, as they see it, compromises their Treaty right to fish and gather. They felt their resources were left to the mercy of fires like the ones that got close to Pelican Narrows. There are also concerns about smoke compromising residents’ health.
But Steve Roberts from Wildfire Management said every wildfire is tackled based on various priority criteria.
“There is no ’let it burn’ policy in Saskatchewan,” Roberts said. “Every fire is assessed and every fire has decisions on actions to best manage it based on the threats it poses.”
Roberts said human safety was the number one priority followed by communities and critical infrastructure as determined by the province. After that comes commercial and industrial operations like timber and mines. The next level is individual values like recreational cabins or fishing lodges.
However, newly elected Prince Albert Grand Council Grand Chief Brian Hardlotte said residents are concerned about letting wildfires burn, because lands where berries grow and animals graze are continually lost. Letting the fires burn creates more smoke, he said, leading to more health-related evacuations.
“You’ve got to put boots on the ground,” Hardlotte said. “You need to protect the values and the value to us is the land. Everybody’s affected by fire and it puts stress on everyone.”
Regardless of the debate over what should and should not be protected in a major wildfire situation the reality on the ground was fire suppression and reclamation work continued for weeks.
The long fight against three large blazes that had thousands of people on edge for almost a month was no longer a threat by late September. No one was injured in the ordeal and there was no significant loss of property or infrastructure. That was a testament to the extraordinary efforts of wildfire crews and the community members who remained in place to help secure vital infrastructure and assets.
— With files from Bryan Eneas and Rebbeca Marroquin