Saskatchewan

North Sask. fires and smoke ground firefighters, Premier Brad Wall

Northern Saskatchewan's aggressive wildfires continue to wreak havoc, hindering firefighting efforts and halting an aerial tour scheduled Tuesday for Premier Brad Wall.

Close to 400,000 hectares destroyed by fire

Currently 108 active fires are producing heavy blankets of smoke that have enveloped large swaths of the province. The forest was ablaze off Highway 969 near Montreal Lake on Monday. (Saskatchewan Highways)

Northern Saskatchewan's aggressive wildfires continue to wreak havoc, hindering firefighting efforts and halting an aerial tour scheduled Tuesday for Premier Brad Wall. 

Currently 108 active fires are producing heavy blankets of smoke that have enveloped large swaths of the province and stretched as far south as Tennessee. 

Aerial firefighter pilot Fred Jorgensen has been fighting blazes from the sky for years, and he says this is the busiest fire season he has ever seen.

"Instead of running ahead of a fire, we also have to deal with rising heat columns. That poses a threat too, if we fly too close to the smoke, it does toss the airplane around a fair bit, typical to turbulence in a big airline jet, sometimes a lot worse," said the pilot. 

Normally, Jorgensen would be in the air, flying a bird dog airplane to help co-ordinate larger tanker planes drop 8,300 litres of flame suppressant on the blazes.

Saskatchewan firefighter plane pilot Fred Jorgensen, standing in front of a plane he regularly pilots to co-ordinate aerial blaze battling, says this year's wildfires are the worst he has seen. (Madeline Kotzer/CBC)

Tuesday's thick smoke and intense combustion kept him and other pilots grounded for the day. 

"We're just waiting for the smoke to lift up, and then we can get back up to help with the fire situation," he said. 

Jorgensen said regulations require pilots to have at least two miles of visibility. The day's smoke put them at about half a mile.

The only pilots who managed lift off were in the central-west part of the province, near Buffalo Narrows.

The oppressive smoke also kept Premier Brad Wall grounded for the day. 

He and government officials originally planned an aerial tour of the fire-stricken areas. 

Smoke choked out those plans, confining the troop to Prince Albert, away from La Ronge, where the tour was supposed to depart from. 

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall speaks to media in Prince Albert, Sask., on Tuesday after cancelling an aerial tour of the province's raging wildfires due to visibility issues from the smoke. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

"This is a provincewide issue, obviously the smoke has made it that, but in terms of the north we have a number of very serious fires in the centre north," Wall said.

"We'd like to see all of these planes in the air right now, but, because of the smoke, of course, it doesn't make any sense for them to be fighting fire," he said.

The constant burning and smoke have rapidly increased the number of people who have been forced to leave their homes in the north.

By midday Tuesday, more than 3,000 people from La Loche, La Ronge and other northern communities had been taken to emergency shelters and hotels in Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert and North Battleford.

There's no word yet on when they can go back to their homes.

"We are facing significant threats," said Colin King, spokesman for the province's emergency management and fire safety branch.

Many fires spread over wide area

More than 500 firefighters are at work trying to contain the blazes, with some coming from Ontario and the Maritimes.

Another 200 workers are supporting the firefighters.

Provincial fire centre manager Scott Wasylenchuk said there have been worse years in terms of the sheer number of fires, but 2015 is unusual in that there are so many large fires spread over such a large area of the province.

As of June 30, there have been 522 wildfires in Saskatchewan, triple the number during the same time last year.

The total area burned, about 400,000 hectares, is roughly the size of Prince Albert National Park.

Much of Saskatchewan was in an extreme fire risk situation on Tuesday, with 108 active fires. (CBC)

Wasylenchuk said he's hopeful that some scattered showers are on the way and winds are supposed to start shifting in the next 24 to 48 hours.

Right now, the focus is on putting out fires that threaten life or property, not to save trees, so there's going to be smoke in the air for quite some time, he said.

Evacuees turned away

Meanwhile, some evacuees from La Ronge ran into difficulties when they arrived at a shelter in Saskatoon yesterday.

Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief Tammy Cook-Searson said some people were turned away when they arrived.

"It was already after midnight and we were on the phone and so we are going to have to deal with that issue with emergency social services this morning," she said. "It shouldn't be happening when people are there with their small kids and people who are sick."

The band was able to get hotel rooms for the people who were turned away. 

Wall addressed the incident on Tuesday.

"As a response to that kind of a situation arising again, we're going to take care of that. We're going to get people into a hotel room. They just need to get to an evacuation centre," he said.

Cook-Searson said she and northern residents are grateful for everyone helping with the situation, but she's hoping a mistake like that doesn't happen again. 

"We just want folks to know, it's volunteers, and these things are put together fairly rapidly and so if there is patience on both sides while we work through the wrinkles at the outset that would be greatly appreciated," Wall said.
 

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