Unless the province gets some significant rainfall over the next few days, a fire ban put in place for the entire province south of the Churchill River could continue over the long weekend.
The fire ban was announced Tuesday morning in response to hot, dry conditions that have impacted the province for a few weeks. The weather conditions are making wildfires spark up seemingly everywhere. According to the Ministry of Environment, there have been 148 fires this year, well above the five-year average of 86 for this point in time, and that doesn’t include some of the devastating grass fires that have burned in southern Saskatchewan, or fires seen in cities like P.A.
The fire ban effects all provincial land, including Crown land, provincial forests such as the Nesbitt forest, provincial parks, pasture land and provincial recreation areas. All open fires are prohibited, though self-contained heating devises such as pressurized stoves, gas barbecues, propane fire pits or charcoal briquettes contained in an approved firebox are allowed for cooking and heating purposes.
“If we don’t see measurable precipitation over a couple of weak ridges that come in over the next couple of days, the ban will likely remain in place as long as hazards remain high,” said Steve Roberts, executive director of wildfire management. He said the ban can be modified if need be, for instance, if certain areas receive heavy rainfall. But unless the entire province gets some much-needed rain, the ban will remain in place.
“It’s all based on hazards and the risk fire poses on the landscape,” he said.
Those in the Prince Albert and Meadow Lake areas know of those hazards all too well. Those are the wildfire management areas where large, not contained fires continue to burn.
One of those fires is the one burning south of Holbein. Named the “rally” fire, it caused a mandatory evacuation order to be put into place for the Hamlet of Crutwell for the second time in two days. An initial order was put into place late Monday, but was lifted a few hours later. A second evacuation order was issued Tuesday afternoon. As of 9 p.m., it too had been lifted.
According to a provincial map estimating the size of the Rally fire, it now covers an estimated 2,090 hectares, or almost 21 square kilometres. The fire appears to have grown on its east side, likely a result of a west-to-east wind that has been pushing smoke into the City of Prince Albert.
Evacuations are also in place due to smoke for those with medical needs in the Waterhen area near Meadow Lake. About 50 people are being put up in Meadow Lake hotels as a fire continues to burn without containment in Meadow Lake Provincial Park.
In Crutwell, evacuees were to check in at the Shellbrook Seniors’ hall. Monday night, arrangements had been made in Prince Albert hotels. Those arrangements were cancelled when the evacuation order was lifted. It’s not known if that’s where residents stayed last night.
There is still no official cause for the fire itself. There were reports of an ATV rally in the area the day the fire started, but government officials denied rumours the rally has been determined as the fire’s cause.
“Fire cause has not been determined,” Roberts said.
“Fire names are assigned at the time to provide a geographical reference, and because there was a quad rally in the area and no geographic feature, that’s probably why the local crews gave it that name.”
Government relations spokesperson Jay Teneycke also stressed that the investigation into a cause was still ongoing.
“It’s important to let any investigation go through its course before making any sort of determinations on a cause,” he said.
What is known is the fires do have a human cause of some sort, as there has been no lightning in the area.
Roberts also confirmed that the organizers of the rally consulted with the ministry before deciding to go ahead.
“We know that the organizer asked us about having and we gave them some prevention advice on safe operation of ATVs and gave them an update into the current fire hazard situation,” he said.
“We don’t issue authority for public events, but we did give them an update of the current fire situation for the day of the event.”
SaskAlert working as expected: Ministry
A spokesperson from the Ministry of Government Relations said the SaskAlert system worked well and successfully sent out timely alerts about the evacuation and other wildfire situations.
There was some concern in the community about the alerts not being received by all mobile phone users.
An important distinction was made, though, about the difference between alerts from the SaskAlert app and those sent through the new national alert system.
SaskAlert messages are delivered on smartphones through the SaskAlert app, downloadable from Google Play or the App store, or online at saskalert.ca.
Some users also received alerts through the new, Alert Ready National Public Alerting System. Provincial officials suggested any people who got a notification — or didn’t — but don’t have the SaskAlert app should contact their service provider (Rogers, SaskTel, Telus, Virgin, etc.) about their compatibility with the National Public Alerting System. That system has been mired in controversy, with many not getting alerts, and others receiving the alerts hours after they’ve been set up.
According to Government Relations spokesperson Ray Unrau, those issues weren’t present with alerts from the SaskAlert app.
“We had no reports of anybody being missed for those who downloaded the app. If people haven’t downloaded the app, they wouldn’t get those notifications,” he said, adding that the system has been used successfully for years.
“If people have been having difficulties, please let us know, but we view last night as being a successful use of the tool.”
Even if you have installed the app, people may have to go into their settings and allow notifications in order to receive alerts in emergency situations.
The province is encouraging all smartphone users to download the SaskAlert app.