It’s still not safe for evacuees from northern Saskatchewan to return home after wildfires continue to threaten their communities.
Vern Studer’s daughter Darlene had to convince him to evacuate his La Ronge home. The 90-year-old has lived in La Ronge since the 1930s.
“I didn’t want to leave. If I’d been 20 years younger, I wouldn’t have left. They couldn’t get me out of there, I would have stayed there,” Studer said, adding he has never seen the wildfires this big before.
Darlene Studer, who is from Potato Lake, knew she had to get her father out when the evacuation notice was given.
“The whole place is like one big crisp. It’s not good,” she said, adding her two brothers stayed behind.
“We always have problems with fires here and there but never in my lifetime can I remember it being this bad.”
The province will receive help from 1,000 Canadian military personnel. About 600 military members will be trained to fight fires on the ground by Wednesday, according the province.
Jason Kenney, Minister of National Defense, said the troops from Edmonton and Shilo, Manitoba will go through a day of firefighting training and then help with manual labour – things like digging ditches.
“This is the need as we’ve defined it. Should the situation get more serious and should more help be needed, the Canadian Armed Forces is always on stand by to provide that support,” Kenney said.
Studer said the family is tired after four nerve-racking weeks. As of Monday, there are 112 active fires, the most active of which is the Egg fire near La Ronge. Twenty-five of those are still not contained.
Officials couldn’t say whether the fire was likely to reach La Ronge but are fairly confident it wouldn’t happen on Monday.
Nine new fires started in the past 24 hours, none of which are believed to be arson.
At least 12 homes or cabins have been destroyed: three in Wadin Bay, seven in Montreal Lake, one in Weyakwin and one just north of La Ronge, according to the province.
Hector Ratt, from the Lac La Ronge First Nation, said the majority of his community left Saturday. He didn’t expect to be evacuated and is now staying in Prince Albert for what he calls a “forced vacation”.
“Couple of people that I talked to said they were starting to get arrested if they stuck around there because they didn’t want to leave,” Ratt said. He had to leave his guard dog behind.
“We were told to leave our pets behind. We couldn’t bring them.”
Evacuees at the Prince Albert Grand Council evacuation centre on July 5, 2015. Lasia Kretzel/CKOM News
There were 1,136 people transported out of the fire zone over the weekend, with several thousand others who evacuated on their own.
There are over 12,000 people displaced. More than 7,000 of those are receiving assistance across the province from Red Cross and other government-contracted agencies.
As of Monday, 721 people from northern Saskatchewan were staying in Cold Lake, Alberta. If need be, the Red Cross said it could still take in 1,500 more evacuees between Saskatoon and Regina.
The evacuation is believed to be the biggest in Saskatchewan’s history. Close to 50 communities in the north are partially or fully evacuated. Already more than 10 times the annual average land has been burnt by fires.
As firefighters pour in from across the country, local crews are going back for round two. Fifteen firefighters from Saskatoon are helping fight fires near La Ronge. The fire department has sent one water truck and one brush truck. More staff will be sent on a rotational basis.
Montreal Lake firefighter Robert Bird has spent 17-hour days fighting the flames.
“It doesn’t look too good. Mostly smoke. Eight hours went down with the fire,” Bird said. Bird is returning to fight fires in Montreal Lake and La Ronge after a short break in Prince Albert to rest up.
“It can get tense but we have to do what we have to do,” Bird said.
Oliver Pearson is a resident of Muskoday First Nation and has been working to put out the fires and volunteering at the Margo Fournier Centre in Prince Albert where La Ronge evacuees are being sent.
“It’s kind of hard to talk about after seeing different things. Me, just volunteering here just really opened my eyes. Seeing these people come in here with nothing, just clothes on their back, and shoes, and little kids,” Pearson said, adding he believes there needs to be more support for evacuees.
“Prince Albert wasn’t ready for this many evacuations.”
Meanwhile, Ramsey Bay residents tried to get back to check up on their homes on Sunday, but were turned away by police at the Waskesiu junction on Highway 2. Check the Highway Hotline for updated driving conditions.
Wayne and Cheryl Harnett live in Ramsey Bay on Weyakwin Lake. After being evacuated on Friday and staying with friends in Prince Albert, they were hoping to return home on Sunday to check on their property.
“We had a few things in the truck — pictures and stuff but that’s about all we got,” Wayne said. The community received a mandatory evacuation on June 28 but the couple decided to stay until Friday because the wind wasn’t threatening their home.
Wayne Harnett waits on Highway 2 to return home on July 5, 2015. Lasia Kretzel/CKOM News
“The lake is surrounded by fire so if the wind is coming the wrong direction, you are in big trouble.”
Corinne Wiebe lives at McPhee Lake at the Waskesiu junction. She is concerned about the smoke in the area and any fires that may come down to her community.
“We keep track of the wind all the time,” Wiebe said.
“We don’t know for sure how close the fires are.”
Corla Silbernagel, Wiebe’s daughter, helped her mother create a Facebook account on Sunday so that she could keep up-to-date with the situation. Silbernagel was visiting her mother from Saskatoon.
“We’re going home today so otherwise she has no — unless I’m texting her saying, ‘Mom this is what’s going on,’ she’ll have no idea. Now she’s on Facebook so she can keep it up,” Silbernagel said.
About 500 hundred evacuees are being sent to Cold Lake, Alta. where they have capacity for 5,000 people.
There are currently 110 fires in Saskatchewan, with 12 new ones starting since Saturday. Six fires at Hall Lake are being investigated as arson.
-with files from News Talk Radio’s Lasia Kretzel, Bre McAdam and Trelle Kolojay.
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