Southern, central Saskatchewan under 'significant fire threat': fire commissioner

As firefighters make headway on a large grass fire burning near Biggar, Sask., Saskatchewan's fire commissioner is warning of extremely dry conditions for the southern half of the province.

Dry conditions extend from Meadow Lake to U.S. border

Fire crews use back burning to control a wildfire near Biggar, Sask., on Tuesday. (Kayle Neis/The Canadian Press)

As firefighters make headway on a large grass fire burning near Biggar, Sask., Saskatchewan's fire commissioner is warning of extremely dry conditions for the southern half of the province.

On Wednesday afternoon, provincial fire commissioner Duane McKay said an area stretching from Meadow Lake to the United States border was very treacherous.

"Humidity levels have decreased again," McKay told reporters. "We are in a significant fire threat anywhere south of that border and perhaps a bit into that forested area."

While there have been no damaged buildings or injuries in the fire near Biggar — about 90 kilometres west of Saskatoon — another fire on the Sweetgrass First Nation, northwest of Biggar, damaged one home so far.

The fire started on Monday afternoon in a rural area near the town and eventually grew to cover roughly 1,500 hectares.

Since then, volunteer firefighters have been battling the flames and trying to save farm buildings.

The fire, which prompted the town to issue a state of emergency, has been downgraded but continues to threaten rural properties and livestock.

"We'll be worrying about [the fire] jumping roads and will be putting crews there to block it as much as possible," McKay said. "We'll also be working the flanks of that fire."

McKay said firefighter exhaustion is always a concern and the provincial government does its best to relieve the situation.

"We have rapid response teams that go and shore up the volunteers with either specialized equipment or manpower," he said. "That's a way to relieve some of the stress that we see on the volunteer system."

One of the major concerns stemming from the fire is a wooded area called the Argo Bush. The area is a wildlife preserve and is full of cross-country ski trails and a chalet.

"It didn't look like there was going to be much left of that site," said Rural Municipality of Biggar Reeve Jeanne Marie de Moissac. "It has become a sanctuary for the flora and fauna in the area and an area where we're all worried about."

McKay said fire is a regular part of the prairie ecosystem, but it becomes a serious problem when rural properties are threatened.

"There are huge risks there to people's livelihood in there," he said. "The difficulty we have is not just the fire but trying to protect all the exposures that are in those areas."

It's still not clear how the fire started. Investigators are using an aerial search to determine exactly where ignition occurred.

Dry year

Extremely dry, windy conditions have caused serious fire concerns across the province. As of Wednesday morning, more than 85 rural municipalities had placed a ban on outdoor fires, along with 15 towns and villages.

Environment and Climate Change Canada said this March was the driest on record in Regina and Moose Jaw, and the eighth driest in Saskatoon.

"Moose Jaw had 0.2 ml of precipitation and that's compared to their 30-year normal of 17.5 ml," said meteorologist Sara Hoffman. "That is incredibly different."

While Hoffman said it was too early to say whether dry conditions will improve significantly this spring, the national weather service is predicting rain and snow for this weekend.

"We have a pretty vigorous low pressure system that should form in Alberta Friday into Saturday and then track eastward across the prairies," said Hoffman. "There'll be some snow in there and some rain but at the very least it's for some sorely needed precipitation in those areas."

The meteorologist said climate change couldn't be directly blamed for this particular cycle of weather, but that dry conditions will be more likely moving forward.

"We can't link one particular dry year to climate change but we can say that this is the sort of impact that we expect climate change to bring," she said. "So we do expect that as our as our climate changes we will see more dry years we will see more extreme conditions like this."

With files from CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning, Bridget Yard


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