Three forest fires in northern Saskatchewan are prompting evacuations in and around Pelican Narrows.
While the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation council had called for a mandatory evacuation of the town early in the morning, the province said Wednesday afternoon only those who needed assistance were being escorted out.
“Ultimately the choice for evacuations is left to the individual,” said Duane McKay, executive director of emergency management for the province. “We’re accommodating anyone who wants to leave.”
At around 1:30 a.m., PBCN Vice Chief Harold Linklater had put out a Facebook post encouraging people to heed what he called a “mandatory evacuation.”
“We are taking all necessary precautions to ensure safety for our community residents and we encourage everyone to evacuate!” he wrote, adding buses were being organized and boats could be used as a last resort.
Wildfire Management Executive Director Steve Roberts said crews were working to defend communities against three fires, which have burnt a total of 69,000 hectares — more than three times the size of Saskatoon.
The largest of the fires, labelled “Granite,” had burned 50,000 hectares and had closed within three kilometres of Birch Portage as of Wednesday, while another labelled “Preston” was just three kilometres north of Pelican Narrows.
Emergency crews set up late night and early morning escorts to help residents drive down closed highways, which had been shut down due to smoke and fire.
Highways 105, 106 and 135 were all closed after fire breached the roadways.
Roberts added they had evacuated Jan Lake and Birch Portage because of their proximity to the blazes.
The province said about 690 residents from the area had made their way to Saskatoon, while another 26 had gone to Prince Albert.
About 3,000 residents remained in Pelican Narrows as of Wednesday afternoon.
“If people choose to stay, they’ll certainly be asked to participate where possible to look after functions in the community,” McKay said.
While the Preston fire was within kilometres of Pelican Narrows, Roberts expressed confidence they could keep it away from structures.
“Pelican Narrows itself is well-established, what we call ‘defendable space,'” he said. “We have lots of opportunities to defend people within the town.”
He said roads surrounding the town and cleared properties were providing a fire break, which would give crews better “tactical positions” to fight the blaze from.
However, Roberts noted they didn’t have similar benefits in Jan Lake and Birch Portage, necessitating those evacuations.