James Smith Cree Nation evacuates vulnerable residents as wildfire burns near community

Rio Tinto removes all but essential staff, takes precautions; James Smith Chief blames province for slow response

A wildfire burns in the Fort à la Corne Provincial Forest about 40 km east of Prince Albert on May 14, 2020.

James Smith Cree Nation has begun evacuating vulnerable members of its community to Prince Albert as an uncontained wildfire continues to burn in the Fort à la Corne Provincial forest.

Chief Wally Burns confirmed the evacuations Friday. So far, ten residents have been moved to the Prince Albert Inn.

“It totally caught everyone by surprise,” Burns said of the fire’s growth Thursday.

“What we’re looking at is the most vulnerable ones and the people who have respiratory issues — our elders and babies.”

Burns thanked the Prince Albert Grand Council for its assistance, as well as his first nation’s health staff.

“I commend my pandemic team and response team at PAGC in response to getting some of our people out with the health issues they have.”

The residents who have been evacuated have been told they have to stay in their rooms due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

James Smith Cree Nation isn’t the only one watching the fire closely.

The blaze is burning near the site of a proposed diamond mine. Rio Tinto and Star Diamond have interests in the project. Star Diamond referred the Herald to Rio Tinto for comment.

In a statement, Rio Tinto, which operates in that area, said it has removed all but a few essential personnel from the site and has worked with emergency services to take precautions such as sprinklers and clearing fire breaks.

“Rio Tinto is monitoring the situation closely and working with emergency services,” a spokesperson said.

The wildfire had been marked as “contained” on the province’s fire map Thursday. According to Burns, though, high winds Thursday played a factor in the fire jumping a fire break and growing in size. It was listed as uncontained, burning 2,500 hectares by Thursday evening. By Friday morning, it had grown to over 5,000 hectares.

It’s burning northeast of the forks where the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers meet. According to the province’s fire map, it has reached the riverbank in some areas.

In addition to the concerns surrounding wildfire smoke blanketing the area, Burns said the fire is currently burning in traditional hunting and trapping territory.

“We have trapping blocks in that area,” he said, adding that there were a lot of quadders in that area.

Burns said he heard the fire was caused by humans. The province has listed its cause as under investigation. Fires are typically either sparked by human activity or by lightning.

He was alarmed by how quickly it had grown.

“Last I heard it was 1,600 hectares. Now it’s over 2,700. You can imagine how fast the fire was with how the wind was blowing,” he said.

“The province has to step up and be proactive in regards to responding a lot faster and quicker. This fire could have been out five days ago. It’s not very impressive how they dealt with the situation. Now look at what’s happened.”

The Herald has reached out to the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency for comment.