Military transport planes and helicopters have airlifted the last of about 1,100 residents escaping a massive forest fire in the remote Saskatchewan communities of Wollaston Lake and Hatchet Lake First Nation.
The massive airlift began about 9:45 p.m. CST Wednesday after three Hercules planes and four Griffon helicopters arrived in the area in the northern part of the province. The communities are about 700 kilometres north of Saskatoon and only accessible by air.
The operation involved helicopters taking people from Wollaston Lake to the nearby fly-in community of Points North. From there, Hercules aircraft flew people to Saskatoon.
The city has set up a temporary home for people in a large civic centre. Local volunteers and emergency organizations are helping with food and bedding. A federal government news release says the Public Health Agency of Canada is also supplying beds, blankets and other essentials for more than 1,100 evacuees.
Despite concerns of smoke and shifting winds hampering evacuation efforts, the operation has gone "really, really smoothly, and we're very grateful for the Canadian Forces assistance; we would not have been able to do this overnight," Duane McKay, Saskatchewan's director of emergency response, said early Thursday from Regina in an interview with CBC News.
"The Canadian Forces is always ready to provide its unique capabilities in service of our fellow Canadians in their times of need," Lt.-Gen. Walter Semianiw, commander of Canada Command, said in a news release issued Thursday. "I am proud of the speed and efficiency displayed by all personnel involved in this important mission."
The Saskatchewan government requested the military's help following its own efforts to get people to safety.
Fire grew tenfold
Moving people out of the area began on Tuesday when a nearby forest fire, burning next to the airport, grew tenfold less than 24 hours after flames were first noticed. By Thursday, the fire had consumed about 4,000 hectares.
"We're just looking at the flames and I got my two kids with me," Therese Benoanie told CBC News on Wednesday afternoon as she waited with hundreds of others to be taken to safety. "Right now, I can say we need prayers."
By Wednesday evening, about 630 people of Wollaston Lake's population of 1,200 had been moved to communities in Saskatchewan's south.
The military airlift moved about another 540 residents, officials said.
As of noon CST Thursday, only about 15 people remained in the community — all of them officials and key people working with crews to monitor the situation.
The fire had crept to within a few hundred metres of the local school and was on the edge of the airport, but the village was intact with no structures burned.
Each plane carries 96 passengers and the helicopters can carry six to 10 people.
The military aircraft were able to take people directly to Saskatoon.
The evacuations on Tuesday and and Wednesday took people to Prince Albert, about 570 kilometres to the southwest and La Ronge. People were then bused to Saskatoon.
Before the military arrived to assist with the evacuation, people who were still in Wollaston Lake were waiting in the community's two schools, which have air conditioning and better air quality.
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Ed Benoanie, the acting chief of the First Nation, whose members include many of the people left in the village, said ground and air crews were working hard to tame the flames. Tonnes of water and fire retardant were being dropped on the forest.
"It is pretty smoky and it's pretty noisy with all these planes going back and forth," he said. "They have to go quite a distance to get some water because our lakes are still frozen."
According to the RCMP, the fire was first spotted on Monday afternoon.
'This northern section of Saskatchewan is under an extreme fire risk, which is the highest level of fire danger.' —Johanna Wagstaffe, CBC meteorologist
Steve Roberts, Saskatchewan's Provincial Fire Centre executive director, has said dry conditions are not helping the situation.
"We've had hot dry weather and no precipitation, so all the foliage, everything above ground is bone dry," Roberts said.
Although the cause of the forest fire hasn't been determined, CBC meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe said Thursday that the northern part of the province received only about 12 millimetres of rain in May — less than half the normal total — and much of the rainfall occurred in the first part of the month.
"So this northern section of Saskatchewan is under an extreme fire risk, which is the highest level of fire danger," she said, adding "it's hard to say if a bigger climate picture has led to the extreme dryness."
Wagstaffe said wind gusts of 30 to 40 kilometres an hour from the southwest "could really fuel the fire, and it's why we're getting reports of smoke blowing across the northern part of the province."
By Thursday afternoon, it looked like firefighters could get a break from the weather. Cooler temperatures and rain were expected and the wind was dying down.