Saskatchewan forest fires mean poor air quality, reduced visibility

By , on August 31, 2017

Forest fire smoke is leading to poor air quality in east-central Saskatchewan (Kahla Buchanan/Twitter)
Forest fire smoke is leading to poor air quality in east-central Saskatchewan (Kahla Buchanan/Twitter)

REGINA— A fire ban was in place for most of Saskatchewan on Thursday while a blanket of smoke covered the province from the southwest to the northeast and hundreds of people were out of their homes.

Emergency social services said it was helping more than 1,500 people who left four communities in the province’s northeast near the Manitoba boundary.

Most of the evacuees were from Pelican Narrows, where a 200-square-kilometre fire was burning about three kilometres away.

“We are carrying out direct action on the southern flank of that fire,” Steve Roberts, the province’s executive director of wildfire management, said in a conference call.

“Highway 135 has been breached in that area north of Pelican Narrows by this fire, and the fire threat exists to the power lines, which are parallel to that highway, and its substation.”

Pelican Narrows was under a general evacuation order.

The community of Sandy Bay, north of Pelican Narrows, also declared a state of emergency. Nearly 80 Sandy Bay residents with health concerns and their families left Wednesday.

Pelican Narrows and Sandy Bay are part of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation. Vice-chief Harold Linklater said in a Facebook post Wednesday that if residents chose to stay, they would be on their own with no guarantee of phone lines, power, water or other essential services.

Duane McKay, Saskatchewan emergency management commissioner, estimated in the conference call that there were more than 1,000 people still in Pelican Narrows. Officials were trying to count people still in the community, he said.

There were five buses in the community, but people seemed to have “very little interest in leaving at this particular point.”

He said they could be escorted out in their own vehicles when it was safe to do so.

“The highway … has been breached by fire; therefore, there is some risk during parts of the day where the highway will be closed for all traffic other than those that are directly engaged in firefighting,” said McKay. “When the fire is subsided somewhat, typically early in the morning and later in the evening, and when it is safe … people can leave during those times.

“We’ll send a vehicle with them to ensure that they get through safely.”

Peter Beatty, chief of the Peter Ballantyne First Nation, said Thursday a strict curfew from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. has been imposed in Pelican Narrows.

“We were getting reports that there were some young individuals still in the community,” he said. “We had to put in that curfew, and an order as well for the RCMP to act on behalf of family and child services, because all those individuals have already been evacuated.”

McKay said smoke was the issue in Pelican Narrows, not a direct fire threat.

But another fire that is about 600 square kilometres in size was posing a direct threat to the tiny communities of Birch Portage and Jan Lake, which were completely evacuated. Emergency social services was helping about two dozen people from those communities.

Environment Canada issued a special air quality statement Thursday for much of Saskatchewan because of smoky conditions.

The advisory said numerous forest fires in northern Saskatchewan meant reduced visibility and poor air quality in that area. Over southern Saskatchewan, widespread smoke was expected to gradually work its way eastward.

The province also issued a ban on all open fires for land south of the Churchill River to the U.S. border, including all provincial parks. The ban covers two-thirds of Saskatchewan.

“Our long-term, seven- to 10-day weather systems indicate that we will have high hazards in those areas,” said Roberts.