POLITICS

More evacuees head home in northern Saskatchewan; rain helps fire fight

07/16/2015 01:47 EDT | Updated 07/16/2016 05:59 EDT
More evacuees were heading back to their homes in northern Saskatchewan as firefighters gained the upper hand on wildfires threatening some towns and reserves.

Evacuation orders were lifted Thursday for several communities including Montreal Lake, Weyakwin and La Loche, a village of about 2,600 people.

As well, a government spokeswoman said officials may lift the mandatory evacuation order in the next day or two. More details will be released on Friday morning.

About 1,000 residents returned Wednesday to other areas, including Pinehouse and Turnor Lake-Birch Narrows. Officials said some residents with medical conditions remained in emergency shelters.

A higher-than-average number of fires this season forced about 13,000 people out of their homes in about 50 communities over the last three weeks. Fires have destroyed about 90 homes, many of which were seasonal cabins.

Flora Kraus told Saskatoon radio station CKOM that, after 18 days in a hotel in Prince Albert, she was glad to finally go home to Weyakwin. But she was also afraid of what she might find.

On the drive back, she saw charred, black trees lining the highway.

"The closer I got, the more worried I was that that was what Weyakwin was going to look like," she said.

When she reached the hamlet, she was surprised to see green.

"Our trees are still here. We still have our brush and our lawns and lilac bushes. I was so happy. It was wonderful. Then sleeping in my own bed last night was heaven."

Kraus, who works as the community's administrator, said fire destroyed one home, along with a mess hall that was being used to feed firefighters and the local landfill.

Ben Herman told CKOM that he tried to stay in Thunder Hill as long as he could to look after his general store.

After the business lost power, he kept it going with generators to keep food from going bad. But he could only breathe by putting wet paper towels over his mouth.

"I said, 'That’s enough. Why are you going to die over a building? It doesn't make sense.'"

Herman then headed for a motel in Prince Albert and, when allowed to go back, found that power had been restored and everything in his store was fine — even the ice cream.

From his front step, he can see burned trees and just how close the fire came.

"It’s such a beautiful area and now you are going to drive for miles and see just desolation," he said.

"All the older people are telling me now we are going to have a lot of blueberries and it will be good for moose. Maybe there is one bright outlook to that."

Daryl Jessop with the provincial wildfire management also had some good news. He said rain is expected in the region over the next day or two, which should help firefighting efforts.

More than 1,700 firefighters, including soldiers, have been working on the fire lines.

Jessop said their work is moving to offensive from defensive mode. Thick smoke had also dissipated, allowing all aircraft to join the fire fight from the sky.

(CKOM, The Canadian Press)