You could see the relief on Prince Albert Fire Chief Kris Olsen’s face Thursday afternoon, as emergency crews took a much-needed breather and prepared to allow evacuees back into their homes.
Hwy 55 opened to traffic at reduced speeds at 5 p.m., allowing residents from the RM of Buckland and City of Prince Albert to access their properties. Olsen said it’s a proud moment for the City’s firefighters, some of whom battled the Cloverdale Fire for up to 40 hours straight before it was contained.
“It’s a great feeling, actually,” Olsen told reporters during a short press conference north of the river. “A lot of hard work from our partners and staff went into saving those buildings, and I guess there’s a sense of pride as well.”
Olsen credited support from partner agencies and a change in the weather for helping firefighters get the blaze under control. Dry conditions and high winds created challenging conditions, the first two days, but Olsen said Wednesday’s cold front gave them a reprieve.
He said there’s still work to do in the RM of Garden River, which still had one subdivision under an evacuation notice as of press time, but in Buckland and Prince Albert, the worst has passed.
“(The) response was a multi-agency response,” Olsen said. “We all had our areas to protect, but I think we worked well together. My hat goes off to all the emergency responders (for their) tireless hours, (and) excellent effort, and I think the evidence is there in the saved structures.”
Volunteer firefighters from the RM of Buckland were also relieved to have the blaze under control. Buckland Fire and Rescue chief Garry Schrader said his crews have been working 12 hours a day to keep the flames at bay.
They performed clean-up duty on Thursday, but Schrader said they’re prepared to continue working if needed.
“My guys want to keep going somewhere,” he chuckled. “They love what they’re doing. They just want to help people and make sure the job is done right.”
While evacuees can begin returning to their homes in Buckland and Prince Albert, the wait isn’t over for those in the RM of Garden River.
Reeve Ryan Scragg said he was hopeful residents could return home Thursday evening or Friday morning. They were still waiting on confirmation from the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency as of Thursday afternoon. Regardless, Scragg is glad to have the end in sight.
“It is (a relief) for sure,” Scragg said. “It’s been a stressful week for us as council members, and also for the members of the community.”
With the Cloverdale Fire contained, the focus has now turned to fire prevention instead of fire suppression.
Provincial officials said Thursday that the fire isn’t expected to grow any further, but could flare up within the existing perimeter. The fire has been mapped at over 5,500 hectares, or 55 square kilometres. It hit the eastern edge of the Nisbet forest and began to burn into farmland in the RM of Garden River. Most of that spread happened in the first two days of the fire, when temperatures soared to the high 20s and low 30s.
Scragg said it was obvious from the start the fire was going to be bad, given the hot, windy and dry conditions. He said the RM needs to take a look at their response, find out what worked and what needs to be improved, and being looking at solutions.
“It’s just something to think about for the future,” he explained. “We as an RM, and I think the other municipalities, are going to look at and see what we can do to make it an even better response the next time something like this happens, because it can happen again. That’s nature.”
In Prince Albert, Olsen said sprinkler systems that were purchased after the record-setting wildfire year in 2015 were one of the biggest reasons firefighters were able to save as many buildings as they did. Five years ago, the department began transitioning from one primarily designed to fight structure fires to one that could tackle wildfires as well.
Olsen said those plans prevented millions of dollars in property damage this week, but like Scragg, he still sees room for improvement.
“There are a lot of fire smart activities that can assist with that, (like) clearing brush around your property, having a sprinkler kit and being prepared, but our crews were able to come in, successfully put sprinklers on numerous buildings that would have ultimately been lost in the blaze,” he explained.
“I think some lessons have been learned and some eyes have been opened,” he added. “It is key, living in a boreal forest like this, to be fire smart.”
Steve Roberts of the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency said that over the next few days, fire crews will begin the weeks-long process of extinguishing the fire. They will focus their attention on areas where there is still a buildup of fuel, and will protect infrastructure where they need to.
Ground crews will work to put out smouldering fires, helped out by aerial surveys of hotspots.
While no residences were lost to the fire, crews are still totalling the number of structures that burned. Olsen said they expect to have a total in the coming days as they begin demobilizing.
Other than a few log decks, a sawdust pile near Aallcann, an office trailer and 15 power poles, it appears as if the relentless work of fire crews kept most homes and industrial locations intact. Despite fires creeping up to the edge of sites owned by Aallcann, Carrier Forest Products and the Prince Albert Pulp and Paper Mill, ground crews helped out by aerial fire retardant tankers and helicopters with buckets kept the flames away.
In doing so, they saved millions, if not billions, of dollars in equipment and facilities from catching ablaze.
The cause of the fire is also still under investigation. Olsen said a joint task-force has been established, but the origin is still undetermined.
Power outages expected to end Thursday
SaskPower said Thursday that while boggy wetlands slowed their progress, all of the 8,000 residents who were without power since Monday were expected to have their lights back on by day’s end.
The utility was allowed to begin work on downed power lines Wednesday, and worked around the clock through Thursday evening to restring the main transmission line that had been damaged.
Spokesperson Joel Cherry said 15 transmission structures were damaged, some burning right to the ground.
An original estimate of 2 p.m. Thursday was updated to 8 p.m. when crews encountered muddy conditions.
“Our crews have worked nonstop since it first became safe for them to enter the area,” Cherry told reporters.
“We’ve had to contend with some extremely difficult, boggy terrain in around some of the structures and we’ve had some … machines get stuck.”
Customers in the Meath Park area were also affected Thursday, as the community faced a short outage while SaskPower switched the rest of its 8,000 northern customers back online.
The return of power also meant the return of reliable service from SaskTel. The outage led to several towers being powered by generators and batteries, and outright outages in some regions led to residents needing to physically go to an RCMP detachment in case of an emergency.
- with files from Peter Lozinski