Saskatoon

Rapidly-growing Sask. wildfire a challenge for fire crews and rural residents

High winds and dry vegetation have made a wildfire in Saskatchewan's Fort a la Corne area difficult to contain, according to provincial officials.

Fort a la Corne wildfire grew from 15,000 to 37,500 hectares in less than 3 days

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

Saskatchewan officials say a wind-driven wildfire over old growth forest and farmland in east-central Saskatchewan is making for a difficult battle.

As of late Tuesday morning, the English wildfire was burning in the Fort a la Corne forest and into some farmland about four to five kilometres 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.

Steve Roberts, acting vice-president of operations for the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency, said the fire had encroached into some farmland, but there had been no evacuations and no structures reported lost as of Tuesday.

The English wildfire has been burning in Saskatchewan's Fort a la Corne area. (Government of Saskatchewan wildfire management map)

Roberts said provincial fire crews were working with local residents and landowners to protect properties that may become threatened.

"Some of them have, for instance, taken plows in and plowed farmland and ag land, so the fires can't cross," he said.

He said there is also work being done to protect structures within the forest.

Dry, windy conditions

Roberts said heavy wind gusts have been pushing the fire through over-mature or dead material in an area that has seen "no appreciable fire activity in decades."

"Those high winds and those gusts from 50 to 70 km/h were pushing the fire through this very volatile fuel, much like a grass fire, only on a much larger scale," he said.

"So that's been difficult and that's why we've seen such large amounts of spread."

He said crews are trying to contain the fire from moving toward populated areas by building fire guards and setting up control lines, including doing some controlled burns.

Roberts said winds had shifted since heavy smoke was blown into some communities over the weekend and were forecast to shift again Tuesday.

He said there will be variable winds over the next 24 hours when a large system expected to bring rain arrives and that crews are adjusting their efforts to reflect that.

Lone water bomber in use

There were between 40 and 45 personnel on the ground, along with six helicopters with buckets, four tankers with retardant and a single water bomber from La Ronge, he said.

Roberts said there is only one water bomber available right now, because the province's five other water-scooping aircraft are "currently finishing winter maintenance and some structural requirements."

He said the retardant haulers are typically the province's primary support tool this time of year, especially in southern areas where there are fewer lakes.

"When doing burnout operations, the suppressant that you want on the ground is actually retardant, not water. Water is used as a cooling agent only," he said. 

There is only one close water source in this case, a small lake, he said.

Roberts said it is a human-caused fire and the investigation into its origin is ongoing.

Rallying to the cause during a pandemic

Dave Yorke, the administrator of the RM of Torch River, said local residents have been "relying on each other a lot" while still being mindful of pandemic-related physical distancing guidelines.

"I think it may be still in people's minds. Just the imminent danger and wanting to help each other out, I think, would supersede it," he said.

Yorke said there have been a lot of people helping each other out with water trucks, tractors, cultivators or discs.

"Some of them put in some pretty long hours," he said.

Yorke said local residents were looking forward to some rain not only for the fire, but for area crops and vegetation.

"It's interesting that the leaves and trees are just starting to come out now, which is probably a month or so later than normal," he said. "So everything's quite a bit behind."

Ryan Scragg, the reeve of the nearby RM of Garden River, said at last word the fire was still about six km from his RM's borders, but he has a threshold in mind in terms of when a potential evacuation would be called.

"Depending on time of day, I don't want to be having to evacuate people at two in the morning," he said. "So if it was within two kilometres, say at seven at night, we would probably make that call at that point."

He said even though the fire had not entered the RM of Garden River as of Tuesday morning, he had been keeping a close eye on it.

"Just the scope and size of it," he said. "It's been doubling every single day for the last four or five days here."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kelly Provost is a newsreader and reporter with CBC News in Saskatoon. Email him at kelly.provost@cbc.ca.

with files from Fiona Odlum

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