Weather gives firefighters help as English Wildfire growth slows

Wildfire smoke expected to blow into Prince Albert Wednesday afternoon

Submitted photo. The Fort à la Corne wildfire measured 40,000 hectares on May 20, 2020.

Smoke from the English Wildfire burning east of Prince Albert in the Fort à la Corne Provincial Fire is expected to blow into the city this afternoon.

Environment Canada has issued an air quality advisory for the city.

The fire grew again on Tuesday. It was mapped by the province at 40,000 hectares. The growth of about 3,000 hectares from the previous day was the smallest increase since Friday. The province said it grew southward, towards the North Saskatchewan River, Tuesday. The smoke column was visible from Prince Albert, some 30 km away.

There was some good news though, Wednesday, as the weather gave fire crews a helping hand.

“Cooler temperatures and overcast skies are reducing the fire behaviour,” said Steve Roberts, acting vice president of operations for the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency (SPSA), “allowing us to tighten those current control lines and get crews right in at the ground level on this fire. They will be supported by helicopters as well.”

Even cooler temperatures are expected over the next few days. More crews are also on their way.

“We’ve ordered more crews today,” Roberts said.

“We’ve tailored more resources to this fire to get those containment lines in place and … cleaning up this fire.”

The English Wildfire in Fort à la Corne Provincial Forest, as viewed from near Weirdale, Sask on May 19, 2020. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

The bulldozers and heavy equipment were hard at work yesterday, working through the evening to put in more fireguards. There is currently no estimate as to what percentage of the fire is contained, however, on Tuesday Roberts said fire guards exist in key places to halt the spread.

Currently, the incident command team is managing the incident. There is an aerial ignition team, 29 public safety agency staff, six five-person crews, eight helicopters, 12 bulldozers and nine crew trucks and engines working on this fire.

Water scooping and retardant-dropping airplanes are available in Prince Albert. They aren’t currently being requested by ground crews working to contain the blaze, but they’re there if needed.

In addition, Roberts said, an emergency services officer has made contact with communities and residents so they can make decisions on orders and alerts if needed.

The smoke was blowing south this morning. It’s expected to move west towards Prince Albert this afternoon and direct back north overnight.

There are no current evacuation orders. James Smith Cree Nation had evacuated some members early on and considered a second evacuation to protect vulnerable populations from the smoke, but decided instead to house them in their community where the SPSA provided them with air scrubbers.

The fire has grown in different directions on different days. That’s all been determined by wind, Roberts said.

“The issue we’ve had for the past week and a half has been the spring wind gust situation, which has fanned the flames,” he said.

“When the winds exceed 50 km/h they start to impede our ability to support the (effort) from the air.”

He added that a lack of spring rain means grasses and vegetation aren’t as green as they would typically be.

“These factors are explaining some of the … fire spread we’re seeing right now” he said.

The main smoke column from the English Wildfire, burning in Fort à la Corne Provincial Forest, was clearly visible from several kilometres in any direction. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

“The fire has grown in every direction depending on the way the wind is blowing. This is a wind-driven fire. That’s why that weather report is extremely critical for fire planning and response.”

While the fire has broken free of the confines of the forest, Roberts said the SPSA wasn’t sure yet how much farmland had been impacted. He said part of today’s work includes tracking how much has been burned outside of the provincial forest.

Yesterday, reports indicated farmers were working to contain the blaze, plowing parts of their fields to block the fire from advancing.