Weather helps crews working to contain English wildfire

The English Fire as seen from Fort a la Corne Road, near Weirdale, Sask on May 19, 2020. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Cooler temperatures and rain helped crews battling a wildfire raging about 30 km east of Prince Albert.

The English Fire, named after a fire tower in the area, is burning in the Fort à la Corne provincial forest. According to the provincial government’s interactive fire map, it’s currently sitting at about 47,000 hectares. It’s listed as not contained.

Overcast conditions and cooler temperatures on Wednesday, followed by a rainstorm, helped ground crews focus their efforts as the fire calmed down.

“Higher humidities and cooler temperatures throughout the evening have kept fire activity low,” said Steve Roberts, acting vice president operations of the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency (SPSA).

“We’re seeing very low smoke and fire activity as of (Thursday) morning. Rain was reported across all parts of the fire.”

While that rain helped, the storm that came with it also brought winds, which flared up the fire’s west side.

“We had gusty winds, so we had some activity on a couple of corners of the fire,” Roberts said.

‘We were able to manage those. As of (Wednesday) night, precipitation did come across the fire and reduce activity from both actual open fire burning and smoke production on this fire.”

Clearing out the smoke lets crews make better progress in constructing fire guards and directly attacking the fire, Roberts explained. When the fire reacts to high winds, it changes the plan of attack.

‘We had much better progress (Wednesday) and will likely have much better progress today (Thursday).”

Roberts wasn’t sure how much rain fell on the fire as that estimate wasn’t made prior to the Thursday morning press conference. However, he said, some of the most active areas of the fire got most of the rain.

As of Thursday, eight five-man crews, 29 ministry staff, 12 bulldozers, six helicopters, crew trucks, engines and water tankers were working on the fire. Water scooping and fire retardant aircraft were available out of the Prince Albert airport if necessary. Of those eight crews, two were added on Wednesday and another two on Thursday. They’re type two firefighters from First Nations communities across eastern Saskatchewan.

The fire is being managed by an incident response team, and a local emergency services officer is working with the leadership of nearby communities to keep information flowing. No residents were evacuated due to either fire or smoke Thursday. On Wednesday, Roberts reported that James Smith Cree Nation was considering a second evacuation of elders and other vulnerable populations due to smoke, but that air scrubbers were supplied so they were able to stay in their community.

Other than the timber in the forest, the only reported losses have been some fencelines and beehives.

Roberts thanked nearby property owners who have been working to FireSmart their properties. Some farmers plowed their fields to provide a fuel break.

The major challenge, Roberts said, has been the wind.

“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.

Changing winds have also meant the fire has spread in different directions, depending on the day.

“This is a wind-driven fire. That’s why that weather report is extremely critical for fire planning and response,” Roberts said.

While there were some reports that the fire had broken free from the forest and begun to spread to nearby farmland, on Thursday Roberts said the province was still working to map the fire spread as there were also instances of farmers burning off stubble.

‘Some of the fires causing concerns were not related to this fire,” Roberts said, adding that the wildfire itself was ignited from within the forest perimeter, and wasn’t caused by any agricultural burning.

The agricultural burning has halted, as a fire ban is in place in the area.