Todd Chamberlain was trying to make a phone call when he looked out his front window to see what looked like a puff of smoke rising from the Nisbet forest.
Chamberlain, who lives south of the river on a rural property just east of Prince Albert, spends lots of time looking out his front picture window, taking in the picturesque view of the North Saskatchewan River and Nisbet Provincial Forest.
He hung up the phone and took a picture.
“I went, ‘Oh, that’s bad,’ and called 911 right away,” he said.
Chamberlain was only on the phone with the dispatcher for about five minutes.
“While we were talking, it went from something I probably could have had a hard time pointing out to something that nobody could miss.”
He shot a quick video and looked at the timestamps. Seven minutes had passed since he spotted that first puff of smoke.
“In that seven minutes, it went from nothing to a giant fire.”
That giant fire, as of Tuesday afternoon, sat at about 4,000 hectares, or 40 square kilometres, and had spread about 14 km from its suspected origin just outside of city limits all the way to White Star Road.
Provincial officials, speaking to reporters Tuesday morning, said dry weather, hot temperatures and strong winds meant the fire was growing quickly.
Late Monday, the City of Prince Albert and RM of Buckland issued an evacuation order, telling everyone living north of the river and between Cloverdale and Honeymoon Roads to leave immediately.
Officials say 29 people registered at the evacuation centre and were staying at Prince Albert hotels. More may have also evacuated to stay with friends and family.
The fire is suspected to have started near Cloverdale Road, about 4 km outside city limits. There was what officials are calling a “high-wind event” when the fire started, which meant it “increased in size fairly quickly,” said Steve Roberts of the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency, which is leading the response in cooperation with the city and the RM.
Chamberlain knows some of the people who had to flee their homes.
While some have taken to local highways to watch as the fire grows and waterbombers continuously fly overhead, Chamberlain also knows that for people who live in that area, it’s not a spectacle.
“This is going to be life-changing,” he said.
Another local man is working to ensure that everyone — including the four-legged members of the family — has somewhere safe to go.
Arsenal K9 Elite Dog Training stepped up to offer free pet boarding for all evacuees, with crates and runs ready for dogs and litter trays and food for cats.
There were about 10-15 evacuated dogs there as of Tuesday afternoon.
‘We thought it was something we could do to help our community,” said Arsenal K9 owner Jason Arsenault. “Everyone has given us such good support since we opened and we thought it was good to help out in their time of need. Having that kind of stress already, (not having to worry about your animals) takes a huge load off of somebody that can concentrate on other things that are important as well.”
As of Tuesday morning, no homes had been lost. Officials are unsure whether any sheds or outbuildings have burnt, as they haven’t been able to get on the ground to take a look at the damage. They did say that sprinklers have been installed on 15 homes, and that, so far, they appear to be working.
Other local infrastructure, though, has fallen to the fire. According to SaskPower spokesperson Joel Cherry, a helicopter inspection of the area revealed that 10 transmission structures had been damaged, “several of which were burned right to the ground.”
That transmission line, he said, is the only one servicing a region of about 9,000 customers, many of whom should expect to continue to go without power for the rest of Tuesday at a minimum.
“There are going to be significant repairs required there,” Cherry added.
“The fire remains active so there are logistic and safety challenges for getting in there to conduct those repairs.”
Transmission lines, Cherry said, like the one affected by the wildfire, carry higher voltages of power over longer distances. They connect to distribution lines through substations. Given Saskatchewan’s vast geography, he said, it’s not uncommon to have only one transmission line serving a wide area.
“When that’s coupled with the difficulties of getting out to where repairs take place … logistically it takes time to respond to something like this. We’re working on taking care of this as soon as we are safely able to do so.”
That power outage stretched as far north as La Ronge.
“Right now, we’re at the mercy of those fires,” La Ronge Mayor Colin Ratushniak said Tuesday. They’re monitoring the situation, including preparing for what might happen if the outage becomes a long-term concern.
“We do have fuel services available for residents through the Air Ronge Co-Op and La Ronge petroleum. As far as food services go the Co-Op food store is currently closed, but they’re trying to figure out solutions to at least open up temporarily. The rest of it the businesses are being creative as far as trying to provide food in different ways so that people aren’t going hungry.
“Nothing is off the table as far as potentially calling a state of emergency.”
SaskPower isn’t the only one to lose assets to the fire. Carrier Forest Products had the fire encroach on its lot, losing a few log decks. SPSA crew and equipment are working with the company to protect whatever they can.
Nearby Aallcann Wood Suppliers also saw the wildfire spread into their yard, sources say.
Crews were moving equipment out of the way and working with fire retardant bombers and other fire crews to protect treated wood out at the site. The Aallcann lot is near the intersection of Highway 55 and White Star Road, nearly 14 km from where the fire is believed to have started.
Despite dozens of loads of retardant dropped near the site, sources and witnesses told the Herald that at least one outbuilding on that site went up in flames.
Those retardant bombers, along with five helicopters and water bomber crews, are a major part of the wildfire response. Along with tankers, engines, crews and heavy equipment, dozens are working around the clock to contain as much of the fire as possible.
The fire isn’t expected to grow on its south or west flanks, close to the City of Prince Albert. Wind conditions are instead pushing the fire to the north and east, where it will eventually run into farmland. There, officials said, it will have less fuel to burn, allowing crews the opportunity to contain the fire and prevent it from spreading any further.
Cooler temperatures should help too. Monday saw a record-breaking high of 32 C, the highest May 18 temperature ever recorded in Prince Albert. Tuesday saw near record highs of 28 C and winds gusting. Gusts are expected into the evening, but the forecast is calling for cooler temperatures and calmer winds.
That, Roberts said, will help ground crews get a handle of the fire, build up the fireguard and better contain its spread.
Still, he explained, it could be “days at least” until the fire is fully contained and crews can begin to extinguish the blaze.
- With files from Michael Bramadat-Willcock