Shoal Lake evacuees hope they can return home soon

Andrea Young, who is eight months pregnant, has been cooped up in a hotel room with her two small children for almost a week now. They had to leave their home in Shoal Lake last Thursday as the smoke became too thick to stay.

Smoke from wildfires continue to envelop First Nations communities north of Hudson Bay

Smoke blankets the forest near Red Earth Cree Nation. (Don Somers/CBC News)

Four-year-old Kaylen Young is restless beside her mother Andrea in a Prince Albert hotel banquet room.

The Youngs are part of almost 600 people from Shoal Lake Cree Nation, located about 350 km northeast of Saskatoon, who have been evacuated to hotels in Prince Albert because of smoke from wildfires.

"I've been shopping for toys. This one is expensive," Young said looking at her daughter.

Young, who is eight months pregnant, has been cooped up in a hotel room with her two small children for almost a week now. They had to leave their home in Shoal Lake last Thursday as the smoke became too thick to stay.

Andrea Young and her four-year-old daughter Kaylen have been staying at a Prince Albert hotel since being evacuated from Shoal Lake Cree Nation last Thursday. (CBC News)

Residents of the neighbouring Red Earth Cree Nation have been evacuated to Saskatoon.

Young said it is lonely for her and the children sitting in a hotel room instead of being in their own house.

"Here they can't go outside by themselves because we're in a city," she said. "Back home, it's a community where they can play outside by themselves and I know they're safe."

Environment Canada has issued air quality alerts and said smoke from wildfires near Hudson Bay, Sask., is causing elevated values of fine particulate matter.

Individuals may experience symptoms such as increased coughing, throat irritation, headaches or shortness of breath. Children, seniors and those with cardiovascular or lung disease, such as asthma, are especially at risk.

Gordon Flett said he could not see across the street to his neighbour's house on Shoal Lake Cree Nation at one point last week because of the smoke from wildfires. (CBC News)

Another Shoal Lake evacuee, Gordon Flett, said smoke on the First Nation made driving dangerous.

"Thursday morning, I woke up [and] I couldn't even see my neighbour's house across the street, that smoke was that thick," said Flett, who has a daughter with asthma.

This is the second time that residents from Shoal Lake and Red Earth have been evacuated because of wildfire smoke. This summer they were sent to Regina.

Flett said they are worried about their houses, and everyone is missing home and their traditional foods like fish and moose.

"They want to go hunting," he said.

Chief wants more help from province

Shoal Lake Chief Marcel Head says they need fire crews deployed near his community to beat back the wildfires and so people can return to their homes. (CBC News)

Shoal Lake Chief Marcel Head said they have been asking the province for more resources to fight the fires close to their communities.

He said the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency (SPSA) has heavy equipment fighting the fire, but it is closer to Hudson Bay.

"We have two [local] fire crews .... they're actually the ones that are fighting fires," Head said.

But Head adds that "they're not really assigned to that most immediate area by Shoal Lake that's hit by the smoke and potential fire hazard.

"It's kind of disheartening. We're not pleased, you know, where you have your own members hired by the public safety agency, but they're fighting fires in a different location."

Head said the evacuees just want to go home, but that might be not happen for quite a while.

"Let's hope the provincial government makes moves to provide more resources and more machinery toward our area."

Head said they may look to the federal government to ask for help if none is coming from the province.

The sun is barely visible because of heavy smoke near the Red Earth Cree Nation. (Don Somers/CBC News)

Expect more extreme events

John Pomeroy, director of the Global Water Futures Program at the University of Saskatchewan, said the heat and fires being experienced in northern Saskatchewan in October are not unprecedented, but they are extremely rare.

"Remember this is after the summer where Canada hit almost 50 C in B.C., where we had some of the most extensive forest fires across the country and where we've had a drought that has run from coast to coast."

Pomeroy said the Hudson Bay area has had drought conditions for the past three years and soil moisture is less than 40 per cent of normal, which doesn't bode well for the water supply.

"Canada's been lucky with water over the years, but we're entering a period where we have to manage the water between the provinces very effectively," he said. "And we have to make sure equity is part of water management and that Indigenous communities, rural communities have access to clean, safe and adequate water supplies, which they don't right now."

He said we should expect to see more of these extreme events in the future because of  the changing climate. 

Wildfires have been burning near Red Earth Cree Nation since the summer. (Don Somers/CBC News)

Dry until next week

Environment and Climate Change meteorologist Terri Lang said dry weather will continue to generate quite a bit of smoke in the coming days. 

"But we're looking at quite a strong weather system coming through next week," Lang said.

"The weather models aren't agreeing, but it certainly looks like a big weather maker [and we] could even see some big snows through the province for the first time this year."

The CBC reached to the SPSA for comment but did not receive an immediate response.