Saskatchewan wildfires force nearly 8,000 people out of homes

The Canadian military has been called in to help care for 7,900 people from a northern Saskatchewan community that includes the province's largest First Nation, as a rash of wildfires prompts a massive evacuation.

Canadian Forces called in to help care for thousands headed to refuge in Alberta

Wildfires burn near La Longe. (CBC)

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  • 7,900 people ordered out of their homes
  • Armed Forced called in to help evacuees
  • Up to 5,000 people headed to refuge in Alta.

The military has been called in to help care for 7,900 people from a northern Saskatchewan community that includes the province's largest First Nation, as a rash of wildfires prompts a massive evacuation.

Up to 5,000 of the evacuees will be taken hundreds of kilometres away to a refuge in Cold Lake, Alta., staffed by the Canadian Forces and the Red Cross.

After the wildfires crossed fail-safe lines Saturday, coming within eight kilometres of the community of La Ronge, the provincial government and the Lac La Ronge Indian Band began evacuating out 7,900 residents remaining in the area.

In a conference call with media Saturday afternoon, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall confirmed he spoke with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who promised support in dealing with the shifting blazes. 

"The prime minister was very accommodating and willing to make sure that, upon official request, the resources are there," Wall said.

"There might be some other need for Canadian Forces personnel, especially to help with what are significant logistical demands as result of a very large general evacuation."

Saskatchewan's provincial fire commissioner issued the evacuation order for the La Ronge area, following a similar advisory earlier in the day from the Lac La Ronge Indian Band. 

The affected area includes La Ronge, Air Ronge and the Lac La Ronge Indian Band — a zone located about 200 kilometres north of Prince Albert. The number of people affected is greater than the headline-grabbing 2011 evacuation of Slave Lake, Alta., where a wildfire forced 7,000 people from their homes.

"This evacuation has been triggered by a number of wildfires in the area, which are blowing smoke and particulate matter into and around the communities," a statement from the provincial fire commissioner reads.

Government officials said most displaced evacuees will drive to Alberta, while others will be bused there or stay with family and friends. 

Vehicles depart La Ronge, Sask., amid haze from the wildfires. Those who can't get out on their own will be bused by the government. (Government of Saskatchewan)

Duane McKay, the commissioner of emergency management and fire safety at Saskatchewan's Government Relations Ministry, said this is the first time this year the military has helped with the fallout from the raging wildfires in northern Saskatchewan.

As of Saturday morning, before the La Ronge-area evacuation order was issued, 5,588 other evacuees from the northern wildfires were already receiving support from the province, according to the Social Services Ministry. They included:

  • 385 moved to North Battleford.
  • 2,293 moved to Prince Albert.
  • 1,799 moved to Saskatoon.
  • 1,111 moved to Regina.

The Lac La Ronge Indian Band is the largest First Nation in Saskatchewan, with 9,935 registered members on- and off-reserve, according to information on the band's website. 

Earlier Saturday, band Chief Tammy Cook-Searson posted on her Facebook page that she and band council members wanted to order the evacuation in a timely way to "take advantage of daylight hours."

Census data from 2011 shows the town of La Ronge has a population of 2,304 people, while 1,043 people live in nearby Air Ronge.

Nine new wildfires have flared up in northern Saskatchewan since Friday, bringing the number of active fires to 114. 

Travel to the La Ronge area is restricted.

Montreal Lake declares state of emergency

Around the same time as Wall's media call, officials in the First Nations community of Montreal Lake, about 120 km to the south of La Ronge, declared their own state of emergency due to the wildfires. 

The call was made by Chief Ed Henderson of Montreal Lake Cree Nation, Grand Chief Ron Michel of the Prince Albert Grand Council and Chief Kim Jonathan of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. 

"A demand for immediate action is requested of the government of Canada, including the military, and the government of Saskatchewan in controlling the wildfires threatening the communities at risk," the group said in a statement emailed to media.

"First Nations leadership stresses the need for emergency measures agreements.... We are calling all chiefs, tribal councils, mayors and reeves to assist in these emergencies," the statement reads.

Firefighters and emergency crews were forced to leave Montreal Lake First Nation at about 8 p.m. CST on Friday when the fire entered the community.

"It was scary because you could hear the fire, you feel the heat and a lot of smoke and that's when we decided to get everybody out," Henderson told CBC News. 

Later, the state of emergency declared by the First Nations groups was upgraded to include all of central and northern Saskatchewan.

Buildings destroyed

Three structures burned down overnight in the community of Wadin Bay, near La Ronge, according to Environment Ministry spokesperson Steve Roberts. 

A fire in the hamlet of Weyakwin, at the north end of Montreal Lake, burned one building, and an estimated six buildings were burned in the Montreal Lake First Nation. 

Roberts said homes, seasonal cabins and garages are affected.

Beatrice Naytawhow with her children and grandchildren at a shelter in Prince Albert. (Carolyn Dunn/CBC News)

Beatrice Naytawhow and her six children were driven from their home on the Montreal Lake Cree Nation due to the highly unstable conditions in the area and are currently living in a shelter in Prince Albert.

"It is not good. Fires keep going up, and then they go down, and they go up and there's evacuation after evacuation. It just doesn't seem like the end is anywhere," Naytawhow said. "It is scary for us because we never know when we're going to go home."

Naytawhow said she hopes her home is safe, but she is uncertain.

"We all love our homes, and once you find out that they are falling apart, you start to fall apart," she said.

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