2023 was one of the busiest wildfire seasons in recent years, says Sask. Public Safety Agency

A digital road sign on Highway 155 beside the Beauval Airport warning drivers of the forest fire that lies ahead. -- Bailey Sutherland/Daily Herald

The Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency (SPSA) says this summer marked one of the busiest wildfire seasons in the past two decades.

Steve Roberts, vice-president of operations, said the province has seen 494 wildfires so far in 2023, above the five-year average of 387. Most occurred in the north.

Those fires have burned 1.9 million hectares – five times the size of Prince Albert National Park, and slightly more than the unprecedented dry conditions caused in 2015.

“Wildfires are becoming more prominent. Their impacts to people, both from a direct threat and from a smoke issue and impact, we saw was an issue across Canada, we saw was an issue internationally,” said Roberts.

Additionally, he explained, most of the smoke Saskatchewan saw came from fires outside of the province. This alone has caused evacuations of people with high-risk health issues, such as in Fond du Lac in August.

In total, 2,703 people were evacuated from their home communities due to wildfire or smoke threats.

Roberts said 55 per cent of wildfires this year were caused by humans.

“We think of the savings and the reduction of risk and threat should 55 per cent of our fires not have occurred this year because people were cautious with their use of fire, were prepared should a fire start.”

Even though it’s the end of wildfire season, Roberts said there’s still a risk. He asked the public to be cautious of activities such as campfires, ATV use and discarding cigarettes.

“There’s still precautions that need to be taking place late in the season, and those affect folks that are hunting, using the forest, being out in the forest late in the fall here doing some late farming activities, cleanup activities,” he said.

Roberts said there was “minimal disruption of critical infrastructure” this year. Wildfires destroyed 43 structures, but there were no losses or damage in communities. There were also no fatalities.

The SPSA conducted 30 wildfire investigations, which Roberts said occurs when the cause can’t be directly attributed to lightning.

While wildfires are the SPSA’s main focus during the summer, the agency also assists in other emergencies.

So far this year, it’s responded to seven communities for flood mitigation, and is currently assisting the Water Security Agency in Cumberland House. Crews have also helped in 12 missing person searches and answered over 75,000 911 calls.