‘It’s kind of embedded in our DNA’; Patuanak Emergency Management Team provides community support as fight against northern Sask. wildfires continues

The Emergency Management Team for both the Northern Hamlet of Patuanak and Patuanak, English River First Nation, is doing its best to support the communities as wildfires continue to burn across northern Saskatchewan. -- Bailey Sutherland/Daily Herald

As 24 wildfires continue to burn across northern Saskatchewan, the Northern Hamlet of Patuanak and the adjoining Patuanak, English River First Nation, located more than 300 kilometres north of Prince Albert, are doing their best to support their community members with limited resources available to them.

Since evacuations were ordered last week, a small army of around 66 volunteers that comprise the Patuanak Emergency Management Team have been working tirelessly to take care of the community members that stayed behind and keep everything running smoothly.

Michael Wolverine with the Emergency Management Team contributes Patuanak’s organization in a time of crisis to their previous experience with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve had a bit of practice with the whole pandemic thing, keeping the team consistent and all trained up with the support of our staff,” said Wolverine. “It’s a little bit different because the pandemic was kind of scary for a lot of people. It was new, it was different. Nobody knew what was going to happen.”

Wildfires are nothing new for the community of Patuanak, giving their Emergency Management Team a slight advantage in preparing for what they knew was on the horizon.

“Forest fires, we’ve been dealing with that for many, many years. It’s kind of embedded in our DNA as survivors of the land up here; we’ve learned over the years,” said Wolverine. “It’s a learning process. It’s not perfect by any means but that’s where we take what we know, and we improve. It’s a learning curve every single day.”

While they’ve received very limited support from the province since wildfires began encroaching on the community and forced many to evacuate their homes, Patuanak’s industry partners like Cameco and Des Nedhe Group have done all they can to provide the team with much-needed resources.

“They’ve been really helping us through this,” said Wolverine. “They’re providing everything possible. Anything that we need, they’ll send to us. We’ve made requests for things like asset protection, hoses, all that kind of stuff.”

Thanks to the Emergency Management Team’s proactive thinking, Patuanak was able to purchase more than 80 personal air purifiers in the nick of time for the homes of priority one and two residents, which include elders and those with chronic conditions like asthma.

Meadow Lake Tribal Council also provided the community with large air scrubbers through their emergency response plan, with one set up in the arena that has been designated as a clean air and volunteer drop-in center.

According to staff from the Beauval grocery store, Patuanak purchased close to $5,000 worth of groceries to feed their volunteers three square meals a day.

“I’m very fortunate to have all of these guys here, that are dedicated and willing to risk their health and their lives to protect their community,” said Wolverine. “I’m giving these guys absolute kudos because these are the ones who are sitting in the front lines and got everybody out, tracked everybody so that we know exactly who is where and what they’re doing. I couldn’t have done it without [them].”

Going forward, Wolverine said Patuanak will be reviewing their emergency procedures to ensure that all the resources they require will be readily available to them when needed.

“This whole scrambling thing, it’s not beneficial to anybody,” said Wolverine. “For our partners who are absolutely stressed out trying to find things for us and us not knowing when we will be receiving them.”

As of Saturday afternoon, one Patuanak community member had lost their cabin to wildfire.

Mayor of the Hamlet of Patuanak, Hazel Maurice, said the community has been quiet since a majority of their community members were evacuated to other parts of the province.

“We’ll be notified when the smoke clears and the fire is extinguished completely, but we need rain before anybody comes back,” said Maurice. “It’s been lonely, even the dogs are lonely.”

Evacuations in Patuanak began last week once the Shaw fire began heading towards the main road. With only one way in or out, community members will be forced to flee the flames by boat if the fire blocks their exit.

“It was a sudden thing, nobody was prepared for it,” she added.

While cool weather in the north over the last few days has calmed the fire down a bit, Patuanak will be feeling the impact on their ability to harvest food going into the future.

“The animals are in distress,” said Maurice. “The ducks, the way they sound… A couple days ago, the eagles were overhead, and they could barely even fly. Even the fish, they die after a fire like this.”

According to a member of the fire crew in Patuanak as of 11:45 a.m. on Saturday, crews have begun rebuilding the fire guard and dug trenches around the wildfire perimeter with heavy equipment, helping to minimize the spread of the blaze.