Shifting winds provide wildfire relief near Crutwell

Photo courtesy Lyndsey Hansen. The Rally wildfire near Holbein burns Saturday.

Cooler weather over the past two days has helped firefighters battling a large wildfire burning south of Holbein, Sask., but tricky conditions still exist in the area.

A combination of wind and environmental factors has provided a set of challenges for crews hoping to hold the fire back from any municipalities.

As of Thursday evening, the fire was listed as not contained. It’s current size is estimated at 2,105 hectares, including a small portion burning near Kiskaciwan, a Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation community, on the south bank of the river.

“It’s in a stand of mistletoe jack pine in there and it’s burned into an old burn that has a lot of light fuels in it,” said Scott Wasylenchuk, director of wildfire operations.

“With the very hot, dry weather we’ve had over the last couple of days, it’s been a very hard fire to maintain. We’ve had multiple crews on it, air tankers, heavy equipment — we’ve gone after that fire very hard.”

The good news, Wasylenchuk said, is the cooler temperatures of Wednesday and Thursday, along with winds blowing in the opposite direction, would have given crews a chance to rebuild the east containment lines. The firebreak on the west side had three days without being tested. On the east side, where the fire breached the dozer guard, it came within 2.3 km of the Hamlet of Crutwell. The hamlet was evacuated twice earlier this week when high winds put the fire at risk of spreading.

So far, all that’s been lost is one structure, either a cabin or a kid’s treehouse, which was in the woods south of Holbein.

“It was a serious situation (Tuesday),” Wasylenchuk said. “Especially with those winds and that hot temperature. I can’t say enough about the men and women who went after that. We did everything to protect those (Crutwell) homes.”

Steve Roberts, the executive director of wildfire management, elaborated on what the presence of dwarf mistletoe and of the old burn site means for firefighters.

“Dwarf mistletoe kills pine trees, and they end up dying from the top,” he explained.

“Embers being blown by that wind will end up in the tops of those crowns of the trees. When that gets going, it runs along the top of the trees, pushed by the wind. Instead of a ground fire, you have a crown fire, and those things tend to move fast. (It’s) a lot tougher for us to control.”

As for the old fire, Roberts identified it as the Crutwell fire. According to historical documents, it burned in 2002.

“When (this fire) hits that, it’s running into immature fuel, grasses and short trees, much easier for us to control with heavy equipment, even from tanker actions because we can get more retardant right on the ground and crews right in those areas,” Roberts said.

“Once we’re in heavy timber, it’s a lot more complicated. When (the fire) spots into those areas, it will start, but it’s a lot easier for us to manage and control But it will move faster. When it gets in that material it’s like a grass fire and can move very quickly.”

That was one of the reasons for the evacuation, Roberts said. The decision was made for precautionary purposes as the fire spread to that old burn area.

Wednesday, Premier Scott Moe visited the fire line, accompanied by representatives from wildfire management. Moe is from Shellbrook, about 10 km northwest of the fire.

“I’ve been on the phone with a number of people who live in and around the area. I have a number of friends who live on the south side of the (national) park as well, in the Cookson, Deer Ridge area. We have been in contact with a number of individuals that are directly affected.”

After speaking to media at the wildfire management centre, Moe introduced Doug Oleksyn, the Reeve of the RM of Shellbrook. He’s been dealing with decisions regarding both the national park fire on the north end of his RM, as well as the Rally fire near Holbein.

“You’re dealing with two fires, so you’re trying to gather … information,” he said.

“You make the call to evacuate with the information you have.”

Moe also took the time to go over the fire maps with reporters present at the Prince Albert Fire Management Centre Wednesday. He pointed out where the fires near Holbein, Meadow Lake and in the national park had jumped the firebreak, and which areas on the map were of concern. He expressed the same desire many of the province’s emergency management personnel also have – for some relief from the weather.

“Ultimately, a little bit of rain would be very helpful.”

No significant rain in the forecast

Despite the wishes of the premier, it doesn’t appear as if any rain will fall in the Prince Albert area anytime soon. While significant rainfall was expected in southern Saskatchewan yesterday into today, both Environment Canada and the Weather Network are anticipating at least another week of warm temperatures and sunny skies.

That’s not great news for crews battling wildfires, nor is it something campers like to hear. A fire ban is in place for all provincial land, including parks, south of the Churchill River. Several RMs and the national park also have fire bans in place.

Without rain, it’s unlikely the ban will be lifted in the near future.

In the meantime, provincial officials are urging residents to be prepared, and to avoid making the situation worse.

“Many, many times over the last several years, we’ve talked about 72-hour kits. These are evacuation or go bags,” said provincial commissioner of emergency management and fire safety Duane McKay.

“(Crutwell) is exactly the reason people need them. Those bags can include medications you might have, money, and some other necessities you need to make those evacuations more pleasant.

“Spend a little time, make sure you are prepared, make sure your activities in the area aren’t increasing the risk and pay attention to information that comes out.”