POLITICS

Evacuees from Saskatchewan reserve to go home, fires keeping 13,000 out assessed

07/12/2015 03:17 EDT | Updated 07/12/2016 05:59 EDT
Residents of an evacuated reserve in northern Saskatchewan were heading home Sunday, as officials began evaluating forest fires threatening other communities to determine if thousands more could return.

Duane McKay with the province's emergency management department said fires and thick smoke were no longer posing a risk to Grandmother's Bay and buses were to transport at least 130 people back to the First Nation.

"That's a good positive step forward and hopefully over the next couple of days, as we plan for this, we'll have other opportunities for people to return home," he said.

Wildfires sparked in the north over the past two weeks have forced about 13,000 out of their homes in at least 50 communities. They are staying in hotels and shelters throughout the province, as well as next door in Cold Lake, Alta.

Last week, 200 people from the Wahpeton Dakota, Sturgeon Lake and Little Red reserves north of Prince Albert were allowed to go home.

On Saturday night, vehicles carrying about 150 people from five communities in the northeast — Missinipe, Otter Rapids, Brabant, Southend and the Athabasca Basin — were escorted back. Those communities had not been under evacuation orders but fires had cut off their road access.

McKay said an assessment of fires that have put the remaining communities at risk might be completed Monday. Officials are looking at whether hot spots could flare up and start new fires, as well as if communities still have phone, power and gas services.

"We want to make sure we can determine there is no threat," he said.

"In the next 24-hour period we'll have a list that will say in so many days these communities can start prepping to go home."

There were 124 fires burning in the province Sunday and wind was helping to clear smoke in the east, especially near La Ronge, one of the largest communities evacuated last week when fire came within two kilometres.

Roberts said rain forecast for the next few days could help "significantly."

Nearly 60 firefighting specialists from the United States have joined the effort to help with fire behaviour and manage crews, heavy equipment and aircraft.

About 430 soldiers and reservists were working on fire lines and more were being trained. Armed Forces spokesman Lt. Derek Reid said, once training is complete, 600 military personnel would be fighting fires and 250 would be working in support roles.

In all, about 1,200 crews are working in the north, added McKay.

The province was working to train hundreds more, some from reserves, to join the fire fight in the next few weeks.

McKay met on the weekend with some crews near La Ronge as they checked on burned areas of forest, their boots kicking up dust and ashes with every step. Temperatures hit 30 C in some areas, and that was without extra heat thrown off from fires.

"It's extremely dangerous work," McKay said, adding some firefighters have suffered injuries that include twisted ankles, cuts, burns and dehydration.

"I think it speaks to ... the importance that when people show up, they are trained and aware of the conditions," he said.