Depending on which way the wind blew the scene around the La Ronge regional airport shifted from a wall of smoke to crowning flames as the Eli and Egg fires converged in.
Among the airport personnel staying behind was airport manager Jim Burr, who at times didn’t know how long they’d be battling the massive fires as they inched closer and closer, and he didn’t know if there would be an airport at the end of it.
“We certainly wondered that for sure but there’s no way to know, you want things to get back to normal you want to have your family back and we were looking forward to that,” Burr said during a brief tour around the airport just days after the evacuation order lifted.
Thankfully the combined effort of helicopters, water bombers and firefighters on the ground helped keep the airport and all its equipment intact, because fires were threatening from all ends. Burr also made note of volunteers who continued to load pickup trucks with water tanks to help soak any flying embers.
Burnt trees and grass can be seen surrounding the airport’s VOR tower, which gives pilots in the air their directional path.
Charred forest lines the La Ronge airport runway on July 21, 2015
“The fire burnt right up to it but the fire department and other helpers, the support; they would take shifts and spend time here wherever we needed it,” Burr said.
A special memorial for one of their fallen pilots was also nearly scooped up by the fire. Just northwest of the airport is a trail that zips through the forest ending at the Andy Clark memorial site.
“Andy Clark was a pilot for the La Ronge region and he tragically lost his life in a crash in 2006. So friends, family members of the aviation community set up a memorial site for him there, there’s a gazebo, a barbecue and a memorial plaque it’s a beautiful spot to meet and we hold an annual event there,” Burr said, adding staff cut the grass around the site as short as possible to remove any fuel for the flames. “The fire burned right up to it but it made it through.”
A second site near the airport wasn’t as lucky.
Scaling from the east of the airport, 90 kilometres through the trees is the Don Allen ski trails, an attraction Burr said brings hundreds of skiers from Saskatchewan and beyond. Driving through the paths, Burr said he believes the thousands of trees burnt to a crisp will likely change the landscape of the trails.
“The trail cuts through the forest as you make your way north and I don’t know how much was affected by the fire but undoubtedly it was, which is a shame because it’s a beautiful ski trail and lots of visitors come to ski it and it might not be the same this year,” Burr said.
But operations are slowly coming back to normal. On Tuesday Burr said commercial flights returned to the La Ronge airport.
“It’s really nice to see the aircrafts that we see here daily from the carriers that operate out of our airport in front of the terminal and it feels like we’re getting back to normal life.”
Looking out from his office window, Burr admits it’s sad to see the green forests scarred by wildfires but he assures his staff that before they know it, forests will turn green and beautiful country he’s grown to love so much will be back.
“It won’t be long before this all greens up again,” he said.
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