Long weekend turns into forest fire battle for farmers

On Saturday, two forest fire alerts were issued for the R.M. of Torch River and R.M. of Garden River, and now locals are fighting to protect their homes.

'We tried to cut if off but it kept getting ahead of us,' says Matieyshen

Fire ravages forest near the farm in Shipman, SK. (Kim Cooper/submitted)

It was all hands on deck by 11 a.m. on Sunday as a forest fire jumped the river that divided Walter Matieyshen's property from his neighbours. 

"We have had fires near Fort à la Corne before but nothing of this magnitude," he said.

Matieyshen and his wife have lived on a farm approximately 10 km southeast of Shipman, Sask., for 45 years.

He had been helping his neighbour keep the fires back on Saturday, but then the wind shifted and the fire started toward his home. By Saturday afternoon, the fire had grown to 15,000 hectares.

The speed at which the fire was spreading through central Saskatchewan prompted two advisory alerts for the surrounding communities. The RM of Torch River, RM of Garden River #490, plus the communities of Smeaton, Choiceland and White Fox were told to prepare should an evacuation take place.

Matieyshen worked with the Wildfire Management Branch for 27 years. With that knowledge he felt prepared to fight the fire, but he wasn't going to take any chances.

"My wife had packed a few personal things but my son Jeff and I were going to stay until we couldn't stay anymore," he said.

Doubling back for spot fires

His years of firefighting experience potentially saved his home.

During the 36 hours they worked against the fire, Matieyshen knew to double back and check for spot fires — fires started by flying sparks or embers at a distance from the main fire. 

"I did catch a spot fire that I managed to get around with the machine, otherwise that was basically coming straight for our house," he said.

According to one alert, the fire had serious potential to cause emergency situations to the public. The alert also said the wildfire was currently burning along the northwest edge of the RM of Torch River. 

Raw video: Forest fire at Fort à la Corne, Sask.

3 years ago
Duration 0:20
Sarah Soloducha sent CBC this video of a massive forest fire at Fort à la Corne, Sask.

When the fire jumped the river, Matieyshen says the wind was really working against them.

"That was the critical part. It was coming east and then [shifted] south and that is what brought it across the farmland."

The wind exceeded 50 km/h at times on Saturday and Sunday. The Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency said "that's made fighting the fires challenging."

The wind had eased up in the area Monday morning, but started to pick back up again from the south by the afternoon.

Community came together

When it came to fighting the fire, Matieyshen says it was a community event. Neighbours came to help him and his family.

One of their neighbours brought over their own water pumps and a person from near Choiceland, which is about 40 kilometres away, came with their own pump truck to help keep the flames back. 

"With all the negative things fires bring, it really brought out the best in a lot of people," Matieyshen said.

While the last 24 hours have been incredibly stressful, Matieyshen says he's ready to jump back out there and to keep fighting. "Yesterday was the critical day but today I am doing ok," he said. 

He's waiting for a call from the community to find out where he can go and help out next.

Overnight, the fire started moving, and by this morning it was approximately 15 kilometres to the east, away from his property and moving along the river, Matieyshen said.

Heavy smoke still possibility

The province is asking residents to avoid the area and to keep their windows closed, as well as their doors and vents. With the wind changing directions there could be heavy smoke in some areas. 

At the peak of the fire this weekend some residents of James Smith Cree Nation were evacuated due to concerns about smoke from the fire, but have since returned home.

Currently the provincial Wildfire Management Branch has two fires listed as "not contained." They are still listed in RM of Torch River and the RM of Garden River. The current forest fire weather index shows an "extreme" risk throughout the central and eastern portion of the province. 

Fire weather index for May 18, 2020 (Government of Saskatchewan )

The weather for the next several days in the areas of Shipman, Smeaton and White Fox indicate overnight the wind will ease in the area. 

There could be a tiny amount rain on the way late into Tuesday, while significant rainfall — along with the possibility of lightning and large hail — could be coming on Wednesday. With the risk of a thunderstorm Wednesday, the wind could be gusting to 50 km/hr from the northeast. 

For people who are now in the line of the fire, Matieyshen's advice is "don't treat it as a stubble fire. Just get it back and then you can deal with the more immediate problems." He says to delegate someone to be on the lookout for spot fires.


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