Prince Albert is now filled to capacity with wildfire evacuees, with more than 700 people seeking safety with family or in hotels across the city.
Deanna Valentine of Emergency Social Services told reporters that 640 people have now arrived in Prince Albert from Pelican Narrows, as well as 79 from Sandy Bay and just over a dozen from Jan Lake and Birch Portage.
She said about 540 of the Pelican Narrows evacuees are in hotels, with the rest finding accommodation with families.
“At this point we are considering P.A. to be at capacity,” Valentine said. “If there are more residents coming out of their homes we will accommodate them in Saskatoon.”
Provincial officials confirmed that there are currently 34 wildfires burning in northern Saskatchewan, but only a few are not contained. Responders are drawing on 15 helicopters, four pieces of heavy equipment and the “entire provincial air fleet” to fight the blazes.
One of the largest, the 20,000 hectare Preston fire, is only 3 kilometres north of Pelican Narrows. The officials stressed that no structures have yet been lost to the flames. In Pelican Narrows, they say, the main threat is smoke and poor air quality – especially for those with health issues.
“This is very much a smoke issue right now,” said Duane McKay of Emergency Management and Fire Safety. “And that is why those individuals who might have a tougher time in a smoky environment were pulled out a couple days ago.”
Birch Portage and Jan Lake, however, are under a “direct threat” of fire and are not considered “a defendable space.”
McKay added that more than 1,000 people have chosen to remain in Pelican Narrows, though they’ve been unable to confirm the exact number. The officials noted that there is “quite a bit of leeway” in the mandatory evacuation order issued for the community. Those who leave, however, won’t be allowed to return.
Highways 135 and 106 have been breached by the fire, impeding the road exit from Pelican Narrows. But McKay said that authorities are on hand to escort people through safely. He said that there is “no backlog” for those who want to leave the community.
The officials confirmed that they also have five busses on hand as a “backup plan” to facilitate a rapid evacuation.
In the same conference call, authorities said that roughly two thirds of the province is now under an emergency fire ban extending from the southern border to the Churchill river. The RMs of Buckland and Prince Albert have posted their own fire ban notices, as has the district of Lakeland.
Paul Johnson of the Ministry of Parks, Culture and Sport said the bans will affect campers and visitors to parks in Saskatchewan.
“Parks will remain fully open but open fires will be prohibited,” he said.
Many of the evacuees seeking shelter in Prince Albert say they are concerned about leaving their belongings behind. Provincial officials say they’re consulting with the RCMP and are working hard to maintain law and order in Pelican Narrows.
“They will be protected,” McKay said. “Typically we see not just the RCMP doing this, but also members of the community taking on a neighbourhood patrol.”
He said authorities want to ensure that evacuees return to a “safe community.”
“Ultimately, at the end of the day, this will pass.”