ALBERTA

Saskatchewan Wildfires Force 5,000 To Evacuate

07/02/2015 12:55 EDT | Updated 07/02/2016 05:59 EDT
Forest fires and thick smoke forced more people from their homes in northern Saskatchewan Thursday and emergency officials were looking to the skies for some respite.

Evacuations began a week ago in the areas of La Ronge and La Loche and, as of Thursday morning, more than 5,000 people had registered at centres in North Battleford, Prince Albert, Saskatoon and Regina.

Fifty-one towns, villages and reserves had been evacuated or partially-evacuated.

Crews were managing to keep fires out of the communities, although flames did reach the edges of Montreal Lake and Weyakwin, said Daryl Jessop with Saskatchewan Environment's wildfire support services department.

He said fire had destroyed a rural home southwest of La Ronge, as well as some cabins in remote areas.

Jessop said he was confident firefighters would be able keep any wildfires from reaching La Ronge, one of the largest communities in the region. A business in La Ronge started on fire Tuesday, but RCMP said that blaze was not caused by a forest fire.

Although there were still 116 fires burning in the province, Jessop said fire conditions had improved somewhat.

Smoke blanketing much of Saskatchewan, even drifting down into the United States, caused Environment Canada to issued special air quality statements for all of the province, as well as parts of Manitoba. But the conditions weren't as bad as they were earlier in the week and air tankers previously grounded were to fly again on Thursday.

Jessop said the weather forecast was also calling for rain this weekend.

"That will certainly give us more of an opportunity to continue to do even more work on the ground with these fires," he said.

Duane McKay, commissioner of emergency management, said the fire situation remained "volatile" and resources had been ramped up.

Close to 600 firefighters were in Saskatchewan, including some crews from Ontario, New Brunswick and Newfoundland. Jessop said some from South Dakota were in the southern Cypress Hills area to relieve other firefighters so they could head north.

McKay advised against travelling north unless necessary. Sections of some highways were closed and emergency vehicles were guiding convoys through smoke when safe to do so.

McKay said some curious people had been driving north to snap photos. But it's not safe if they can barely see the road or firefighting equipment travelling on it, he said. There's also a risk of them running over hoses.

"If we have to stop our fire operations to go and rescue somebody, that increases the threat to people and communities we're trying to protect. And, quite frankly, it then puts firefighters in danger."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had Cyprus

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