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Saskatchewan Fires: Thousands Of Evacuees Still In Limbo

07/13/2015 01:53 EDT | Updated 07/13/2016 05:59 EDT
Emergency officials are warning thousands of fire evacuees from northern Saskatchewan not to go home until it's safe.

Some residents have been allowed to return to a handful of communities and wildfires across the province have become "a bit more normalized," Duane McKay with emergency management said Monday.

But that progress doesn't mean all danger has passed, he said.

"Until wildfire management actually issues an all-clear for people to return, we respectfully request that people restrict on themselves travel in those areas."

Flames and thick smoke have forced about 13,000 people out of their homes in at least 50 communities over the last two weeks. Fires have destroyed 81 houses and cabins.

Nearly 1,500 firefighters are in the region, including Edmonton military personnel and crews from other provinces and the United States. About 90 northern residents also started fire training Monday so they can join the effort.

McKay said he understands that many evacuees want to know how much longer they'll be out of their homes. Officials are reviewing which communities are no longer under threat and have utility services and road access. Evacuation orders may be lifted after meeting with municipal leaders.

About 130 evacuees were allowed to return Sunday to Grandmother's Bay reserve. Others from eight communities not under evacuation orders also went home after smoke no longer blocked road travel and ceased to pose health concerns.

Word of those going back prompted some people to drive back to their properties to check on them, and the traffic posed a problem for firefighters, said McKay.

The fire situation remains "dynamic," said Steve Roberts with wildfire management.

There were 127 fires burning on Monday, half of them near La Ronge, a town of 2,700 and one of the largest communities in the north.

Two to three millimetres of rain fell in the region on the weekend — "not enough to significantly change the behaviour on these fires."

Roberts said although some fires may be under control, crews need to ensure they won't flare up again.

"That's why some of these larger fires near communities are taking a little longer before we're comfortable saying that they're secure," he said

"We will clear communities where we can, we will allow people to go back when it's safe and we will work with highways to ensure that the road travel to and from those locations are safe."

Premier Brad Wall announced Monday that the province's Crown corporations will allow evacuees to delay paying their utility bills, car insurance premiums and driver's licence fees until September.

Also on Monday, military resources were diverted for several hours as a search was launched for a soldier who was reported missing on the fire line near La Ronge.

The soldier was found "in good condition" later in the evening but military officials did not provide further details of the circumstances.

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