POLITICS

Saskatchewan out of firefighting funds as more than 3,000 evacuated from north

06/30/2015 02:04 EDT | Updated 06/30/2016 05:59 EDT
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall says the province's firefighting budget has been depleted, but crews will keep working in the north, where flames and smoke have forced at least 3,000 people from their homes.

Evacuations started late last week in about a dozen communities around La Loche and La Ronge, which Wall tried to fly into Tuesday. A heavy haze blanketing the sky kept him in Prince Albert.

The premier visited some evacuees at a college campus there and spoke with First Nations leaders. He said people from several reserves in the area could also be forced out, possibly pushing the total number of evacuees up to 5,000.

"It also means we'll be using the evacuation centers that have been set up," he said, detailing many larger centres in Regina, and smaller ones in North Battleford and Swift Current.

"We want to make sure people are safe and warm and out of the elements, after that, we want to make sure there's care."

Wall told reporters he's not worried about the financial cost.

"Our first priority right now is not the budget. Our priority is response to the fire," he said.

"We're going to make sure people are safe."

Saskatchewan NDP Leader Cam Broten went up to La Ronge early in order to beat the uncertain conditions. On Tuesday, he met with Lac La Ronge band leadership, as well as fire and emergency personnel.

"It's about making sure that the immediate needs and safety of everyone is well taken care of, that's the concern now," said Broten. "In the days ahead it will also be about looking at the policies that this government has when it comes to fighting forest fires to make sure that they're as effective as they need to be."

It has been a busy season for wildfires in Saskatchewan — there have been 522 so far, compared with about 150 at this time last year, said Scott Wasylenchuk with the province's fire centre.

He said there were 108 active fires Tuesday, but many were in the back country. About 500 firefighters were focusing all efforts on flames threatening communities, power and phone service.

Smoke from other fires in Alberta, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories were adding to the smoggy sky and winds carried some of it into the United States, as far south as Tennessee.

Air-quality advisories have been in place for the last few days for most of Saskatchewan. Health officials said although it didn't look like it, air quality had improved Tuesday in such places as Prince Albert, Saskatoon and Regina.

Karri Kempf, an emergency services manager with social services, said evacuees were also being housed in Saskatoon and Regina. Staff were working to find more spaces for others expected to leave the north as soon as they could get out.

Some sections of highways were closed, but emergency vehicles were escorting convoys through smoke when possible. Kempf said some exhausted evacuees spent as long as 11 hours on buses to get to shelters.

Audrey Miller and her husband, who has respiratory problems, made the scary drive from Wadin Bay to La Ronge, then on to Prince Albert. They own a convenience store and a camping resort and, when they left, flames were right across from their business. They grabbed their passports and wills and took off.

"It’s the most frightening thing — very frustrating that there’s nothing we can do," Miller said.

"We live where we work. We work where we live ... Hopefully all our stuff will still be there when we get back."

Wall said he was grateful for the help from other provinces.

"This is a strength of Canada, that we come together, and we help each other respond," he said. "Saskatchewan has been there when we've had relatively quiet forest seasons and we've been able to help in other jurisdictions across the country and frankly, in the United States as well, recently in Colorado."

Soon, he said assistance will be arriving through an international agreement with the State of South Dakota.

A big downside of the smoky conditions is that water bombers from both Prince Albert and La Ronge are unable to assist in the fire-fighting efforts for the time being.

"In the 10 years that I've been on, this has been the worst year that I've seen so far," said pilot Fred Jorgensen. "Just with the extremely dry conditions and the number of fires that have popped up ... we don't seem to have the resources to be able to handle them all."

However, they have a back-up plan in place, meaning the efforts are not completely at a standstill.

"We have spread our groups out throughout different bases so we don't get smoked in. We have a group in Buffalo Narrows which is able to [take off] and have been dispatched on several fires in their area," said Jorgenson.

The rest of them remain on alert at the airport, waiting for the visibility to pick up.

"As soon as it does, we'll be out there as well," he said.

— By Chris Purdy in Edmonton, with files from CJLR, CKBI, AP