Saskatchewan wildfire forces emergency airlift

Saskatchewan wildfire forces emergency airlift

01 June 2011

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Canada — Military transport planes and helicopters have been dispatched to northern Saskatchewan to help evacuate the remote communities of Wollaston Lake and Hatchet Lake First Nation, which are under threat from a massive forest fire.

Two Hercules aircraft and three Griffon helicopters arrived Wednesday evening around 9:45 p.m. CST, according to provincial officials. Another Hercules aircraft was en route and more aircraft were to be sent to the communities Thursday morning.

Moving people out of the area, which is only accessible by air, began on Tuesday when a nearby forest fire grew tenfold less than 24 hours after flames were first noticed.

“The fire’s getting close. Not even a hundred yards [away],” Therese Benoanie told CBC News Wednesday afternoon as she waited with hundreds of others to be taken to safety. “We’re just looking at the flames and I got my two kids with me. Right now, I can say we need prayers.”
Evacuees from Wollaston Lake arrive at the airport in La Ronge. Evacuees from Wollaston Lake arrive at the airport in La Ronge. (CBC/Brett Bradshaw)

By Wednesday evening, about 630 people had been moved to communities in Saskatchewan’s south.

The total population around Wollaston Lake is about 1,400.

The military transport planes were expected to arrive at the fly-in community of Points North Landing and take people directly to Saskatoon.

Emergency officials were in the area making arrangements for people to get to Points North Landing. They said each plane can carry 96 passengers and the helicopters can carry six to 10 people.

A fire, which officials said now covers about 500 hectares, was close to the community’s airport Wednesday morning and heavy smoke was making it difficult for planes to land.

On Tuesday 242 residents were taken to Prince Albert, about 570 kilometres to the southwest. Many of Wednesday’s evacuees were flown to La Ronge before being bused to Saskatoon, about 700 kilometres to the southwest of Wollaston Lake.

Before the military arrived to assist with the evacuation, around 600 people were still in Wollaston Lake and were waiting in the community’s two schools, which have air conditioning and better air quality.

Residents told CBC News earlier in the day that the smoke is getting thicker and some people are worried about being able to get out.

“A bad feeling we’re getting right now,” said Rick Hunt, who works in the band office for the Hatchet Lake Denesuline First Nation, which is at Wollaston Lake. Hunt was still in the village in the morning. “That smoke is pretty strong.”

Ed Benoanie, the acting chief of the First Nation, whose members include many of the people left in the village, said ground and air crews are working hard to tame the flames.

Tonnes of water and fire retardant were being dropped on the forest.

“It is pretty smoky and it’s pretty noisy with all these planes going back and forth,” he said. “They have to go quite a distance to get some water because our lakes are still frozen.”

Steve Roberts, Saskatchewan’s Provincial Fire Centre executive director, said dry conditions were not helping the situation.

“We’ve had hot dry weather and no precipitation, so all the foliage, everything above ground is bone dry,” Roberts said Wednesday.

More than 50 homes are currently under threat, Benoanie said around 1 p.m. CST. Eight hours later, officials reported that the fire situation had not changed.

According to the RCMP, the fire was first spotted on Monday afternoon when it was estimated to cover about 10 hectares of forest.

By Tuesday, the fire had grown to 100 hectares. On Wednesday, it had grown again to about 500 hectares.

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