Cities, province wrestling with how to accomodate people displaced by wildfires during pandemic

COVID-19 is changing how emergency planners are dealing with people displaced by wildfires.

Challenges include transport, accommodation

A wildfire in Saskatchewan's Fort a la Corne forest has been encroaching on some farmland. (Submitted by Sarah Soloducha)

Emergency planners say the old ways are not going to work.

Wildfire evacuations are not new in Saskatchewan, but the possibility of having to do them during a pandemic is creating a whole new world of challenges.

"We've already had some planning discussions with both communities and government agencies," said Steve Roberts, acting vice-president of operations for the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency.

These are not theoretical discussions. The issues of how to move people safely, and where to send them to, are as real as the fires.

As of late Tuesday morning, the English wildfire was burning in the Fort a la Corne forest and into some farmland south of Highway 55 near communities such as Shipman and Smeaton, about 180 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon.

The province said the fire had burned more than 37,500 hectares so far and was not yet contained. Three days earlier, the fire was listed at 15,000 hectares in size.

The fire prompted officials in the RMs of Garden River and Torch River to issue wildfire advisory emergency alerts on Sunday to prepare residents for potential evacuations — advisories that were still in place Tuesday afternoon.

Roberts said in a teleconference that people could still be bused from the north into communities such as Prince Albert and Saskatoon.

"If we have to move people in larger groups then we will look at, obviously, how we would space them out, whether we would provide things like masks and stuff if we had to bus them out," he said.

In the past, people have stayed in civic facilities converted to living quarters.

"The idea of having them in group settings like a gymnasium or a skating rink would be curtailed by COVID," Roberts said.

"So we would be looking at either far fewer folks in a single facility, or using things like hotel rooms to keep people separated."

In Prince Albert, the Red Cross kicks its supports into play when it's contacted by the province. Red Cross officials said Wednesday that plans are being made to address the issues identified by Roberts.

"Disasters won't stop during the COVID-19 pandemic," said David Smith, senior manager of emergency management for the Canadian Red Cross in Saskatchewan.

"Contingency planning with our partners is underway, taking into account the physical distancing measures that remain in place and what that could potentially mean for evacuations."

In Saskatoon, the idea of housing large groups of people in a soccer centre has already been rejected.

"We will not be doing the congregated settings like we've done in the past. We are working with hotels in Saskatoon and with our partners around, if the evacuees come in, how can we help them in hotels," said Pamela Goulden-McLeod, director of emergency planning.

Hotels allow for more practical physical distancing and could help keep this distancing in effect during mealtimes, she said. 


Dan Zakreski is a reporter for CBC Saskatoon.


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