'Significant progress' on wildfires allows more northern Sask. residents to go home

Hundreds of people were on their way back to northern Saskatchewan Friday after crews made “significant progress” on wildfires that led to the evacuation of more than 2,000 people in late August.

Smoke still hanging low in some areas Friday

People are returning to northern Saskatchewan as fire crews say they have made major progress in their fight against the flames. (Anouk Lebel/SRC)

Hundreds of people were on their way back to northern Saskatchewan Friday after crews made "significant progress" on wildfires that led to the evacuation of thousands in late August.

More than 2,700 people had to leave northern communities, including Pelican Narrows, Sandy Bay, Jan Lake and Tyrell Lake beginning in late August.

On Thursday, the chief of Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation lifted an evacuation order, allowing hundreds of people from Pelican Narrows and Sandy Bay to return home.

Officials with the province said Friday that more than 900 people had started driving home from Saskatoon and Prince Albert, Sask., on Wednesday. About 1,900 remained in the two cities Friday morning but more were expected to leave that day.

People are also allowed to return to Jan Lake and Tyrell Lake, and the community of Birch Portage was expected to be ready for residents to return on Saturday.

Duane McKay, Saskatchewan's commissioner of fire safety and emergency management, told reporters Friday a recent change in the weather was good news for the firefighting effort, saying the crews had made "significant progress" but some smoke issues persisted. 
Smoke billows from a wildfire in northern Saskatchewan in late August. (Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure)

"The current weather pattern is keeping the smoke low in the community and I think reports from the community is that this has been one of the smokiest days that we've seen throughout the entire operation," said McKay.

He said air purification systems have been set up in Pelican Narrows, Sandy Bay and Deschambault Lake to assist people who are affected by the smoke.

Crews will soon begin dismantling their temporary base at one of the community schools by removing firefighting equipment, bunk houses and other equipment.

"Our focus is on those secure areas and expanding those to now maintain that security for those folks that have come back to their communities," said McKay.

As of Friday morning, the Wilkins fire, south of Pelican Narrows, was contained — meaning not expected to grow in size — at 6,000 hectacres. Of the 118,000 hectares burning in the Granite fire, 25 per cent was contained, including the communities and highways.

Twenty-five per cent of the 47,000-hectare Preston fire was also contained, including communities and highways.