Evacuated Southend residents return home

A wildfirefighter works in Prince Albert National Park. Photo courtesy Parks Canada.

The residents of Southend, Sask., are heading home.

The community was evacuated last Tuesday, June 19, as a wildfire threatened their home.
Monday, that evacuation order was lifted and yesterday buses came to take people home.

All told, almost 900 people had registered with Emergency Social Services, including 579 people staying in Prince Albert, split between family, friends and hotels.

The Woods fire, the one that had been threatening Southend, is sitting at about 9,300 hectares. While it wasn’t listed as contained as of Tuesday morning, it hadn’t grown in a few days and was surrounded by a fire guard on its north, west and east sides.

“We had a lot of activity over the last week or so with showers and scattered rain that has come through the province,” said Scott Waslyenchuk, director of wildfire operations.

“It’s helped us quite a bit.”

Decisions to evacuate or return are made by the local government, in this case Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, with advice from provincial officials.

In Southend, the fire is no longer threatening either the community or the road, so officials recommended people return.

Still, people with health conditions have not been cleared to go home, due to air quality. They will stay wherever they are evacuated until conditions improve, or a fresh air shelter can be set up.

The process of setting up a clean air shelter is also underway, with the provincial government providing cots and air scrubbers to authorities in Southend.

The other major fire of concern, the Arthur Fire, is also holding steady thanks to rainfall.

The fire is just a few kilometres from the McArthur mine site, a Cameco uranium mine that is not currently in production. A small staff remains on site. The mine has its own emergency management plan and fire buffer zone, and government officials are working with the mine to prevent the fire from causing damage.

While the rain has provided a break for wildfire fighters addressing those two major fires of concern, thunderstorms have kept crews busy.

“Lightning over the last 24 hours gave us 13 new starts,” Wasylenchuk said Tuesday morning, “63 new fires in the last five days.”

Some of those new fires popped up on the west side of Lac La Loche. They popped up near an old burn site, and some merged to form a bigger fire. But Wasylenchuk isn’t worried.

“We received quite a bit of rain on it in the evening, so there’s no threat to the community at all,” he said.

“We’re going to move some crews in there and start working on those fires today.”