Peter Ballantyne chief blames provincial policy for scale of summer wildfires

Peter Beatty, chief of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, moved the resolution, which was seconded by Lac La Ronge Indian Band’s Chief Tammy Cook-Searson, seated just to his left. Arthur White-Crummey/Daily Herald

The chief of Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation says a provincial “let it burn” policy is responsible for letting this summer’s wildfires get out of control.

Chief Peter Beatty made the comments while presenting a resolution to the Prince Albert Grand Council’s General Assembly on Monday. The delegates, coming from the council’s 12 member First Nations, passed it unanimously.

The resolution calls for an investigation into how the fires were managed, as well as the resulting efforts to evacuate hundreds of band members from Pelican Narrows and Sandy Bay.

“They lost control of that fire,” Beatty told the assembly of chiefs and dignitaries at the Senator Allen Bird Memorial Centre in Prince Albert.

In its preamble, Beatty’s resolution asserts that the wildfires could have been contained “had immediate action been taken.” He claimed that the province’s wildfire management branch has moved away from full-fledged fire suppression to a so-called “let it burn” policy, adopting tactics that guide fires around communities and assets.

“They said those forested areas are old growth forests and need to be renewed, that tells you that in their mind they should let these fires burn and manage them,” Beatty said. “I think that had a lot to do with what happened here.”

When reached for comment, a Wildfire Management spokesperson took issue with the language Beatty used. She said there is no such thing as a “let it burn” policy in Saskatchewan.

“The Ministry of Environment assesses every wildfire, no matter where it is, and makes decisions about how best to manage it,” she said. “Fires threatening communities always receive the highest priority.”

She said the fires near Pelican Narrows fit that bill, and received a “priority response” shortly after detection.

The Peter Ballantyne chief wasn’t finished with his criticism, though. He also had harsh words for the relief effort, especially the decision to house hundreds of evacuees in a soccer centre in Saskatoon…

For more on this story, see the Tuesday October 24 print or e edition of the Daily Herald.