Pelican Narrows under mandatory evacuation order, 'aggressive' fire activity expected to continue

Provincial officials estimate another 1,100 people will be leaving the community Wednesday, after 450 people with health concerns were driven to Saskatoon Tuesday.

Hot, dry weather forecast for the next week in northeast parts of the province

The community of Pelican Narrows is under a mandatory evacuation order. (Ashley Queens/Facebook)

Wildfires that have forced residents out of the northern Saskatchewan community of Pelican Narrows could rage for another week or more, government officials say.

Saskatchewan Wildfire Management Branch executive director Steve Roberts said there's no significant rain in the forecast for the area.

"We will continue to see aggressive fire activity around the clock and we do not see any huge reprieve from a weather perspective for at least a week," Roberts told reporters on a conference call Wednesday afternoon.

Three fires are burning within 10 kilometres of the community of several thousand people. The largest is the Granite fire, covering an estimated 50,000 hectares.

Peter Beatty, chief of Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation — which includes the community of Pelican Narrows — signed a mandatory evacuation order Tuesday evening as smoke from northern forest fires intensified.

"We got a lot of people out, but we don't know how many," Beatty said Wednesday morning as he prepared for a day of meetings and planning.

Overwhelming smoke

Pelican Narrows resident Charla Ballantyne was one of those taken to Saskatoon Tuesday. She said the smoke was overwhelming at times.

"The helicopters couldn't land. They couldn't see. The helicopter almost crashed into the church," Ballantyne said.

Provincial commissioner of emergency management and fire safety Duane McKay said residents can't be forced out of the community. As many as 3,000 remain there.

Pelican Narrows is a village located roughly 420 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon, but the majority of residents live on the adjacent reserve under the umbrella of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation.

Early Wednesday morning, all roads in and out of the community were closed after fire crossed them, Beatty said. That includes the highway south to Prince Albert, north to the PBCN community of Sandy Bay, and east to Flin Flon, Man.

Wednesday afternoon, McKay said vehicles could travel on some roads, as long as there was an escort by police or other emergency officials.

​PBCN Vice-Chief Harold Linklater is helping those staying in Prince Albert. He said the smoke was unbearable and the fires visible when he left Tuesday.

Roads out of Pelican Narrows were closed earlier, but vehicles are getting through on some roads, with escorts by emergency officials. Evacuees can also take a boat across the lake. (Highway Hotline)

"The fire was getting too darn close. We don't want to take any risks," Linklater said.

"I'm not feeling too good about it. I'm worried about the people who decided to stay."

Linklater said he's worried about the firefighters and others who have remained.

"I'm grateful to those who are risking their lives for our community," he said.

On Tuesday, roughly 450 people from Pelican Narrows with health concerns were driven to Saskatoon. People with babies, elderly people and people with breathing problems were all taken out of the community.

Provincial officials estimate another 1,100 people will be leaving the community Wednesday. Of those, 500 people will be travelling to hotels and shelters in Saskatoon and another 600 people will be staying in hotels in Prince Albert.

Anyone who chooses to stay behind is being asked to contact Pelican Narrows security and the RCMP.

Smoke billows from a wildfire in northern Saskatchewan. (Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure)

Prepared to leave

Meanwhile, other people in the area are getting ready to flee their homes if they have to.

Moira Davis lives in nearby Creighton, and has already started collecting photo albums, insurance information, water and food if her family needs to make a quick escape.

"I'm not thinking the fire is coming our way," she told CBC Radio's The Morning Edition.

"I'd be more concerned about smoke or if the power lines get compromised and it leaves three communities without power."

Davis says the area is extremely dry this year, and it wouldn't take much to set local forests ablaze.

"All of our leaves in our backyard have been turning yellow," she said. "It isn't because it's turning cold and it's fall. It's because there's no water."

She says the situation can change rapidly and she wants to be prepared for the worst.

"Pelican Narrows went from, 'We're getting a few people out who have health conditions,' at 8 p.m. to a full evacuation later that night," said Davis.

"It only takes that length of time for something to happen."

Smoke warnings spread

Meanwhile, Environment Canada says forest fire smoke has covered a large section of northeastern Saskatchewan.

Thick smoke is hanging over an area that includes Prince Albert, La Ronge, Hudson Bay, Kamsack, Melfort and Pelican Narrows.

As well, the resort village of Jan Lake declared a state of emergency over the smoke and many people have left the area.

Anyone inside the warning area with breathing issues are being asked to stay inside with the windows shut. People may get shortness of breath, increased coughing and headaches.

The national weather service says much of central and northern Saskatchewan will be experiencing extremely poor air quality and reduced visibility until Thursday.

There were 33 active wildfires in the province as of 6 a.m. CST Wednesday. The overall number of forest fires is down compared to the five-year average.

The province's chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, is warning all Saskatchewan residents to be aware of smoky outdoor conditions.

Shahab said conditions are worst in the northeast region, but the smoke could spread across the entire province in the coming days.

Shahab says those with breathing problems or special health concerns should take extra care.

"It is important to stay indoors as much as possible. If you're indoors, especially when it's warm, you do have to keep the windows closed to prevent the smoke from coming in," he said.