PRINCE ALBERT -- A wildfire evacuation of a northern Saskatchewan community has led to a rapidly increasing outbreak of COVID-19 – a situation their emergency response coordinator says could have been minimized if the province didn’t lift all public health restrictions.

Daryl Wright with the Meadow Lake Tribal Council (MLTC) said roughly 250 people evacuated to Lloydminster from Buffalo River Dene Nation due to a nearby wildfire. When most were cleared to return earlier this week, rapid testing revealed several cases of COVID-19.

“I think that the general population had let down their guard when the health order was lifted,” said Wright.

“We also lost all enforcement measures with the health order, which made it a challenge to get compliance, cooperation with the isolation recommendations.”

On July 15, Buffalo River Dene Nation had only five active cases of COVID-19. As of Thursday, a week later, he said that number is now in the 60s.

Wright said most people who tested positive have been transferred to assisted self-isolation units.

He said the COVID-19 vaccine rate in Buffalo River is less than 40 per cent. The provincial government lifted all restrictions based on reaching 70 per cent of people age 12 and over getting their first dose.

“It’s a challenge when you bring a population with a low vaccine rate into an area where the assumption is everybody has 70 per cent or higher,” said Wright.

He also pointed to issues of overcrowding in Indigenous communities, saying people who tested positive couldn’t return home because others are living in the same house.

Opposition NDP leader Ryan Meili said the pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of remote Indigenous communities.

“We see the underlying problems of overcrowding on reserve, issues of underlying health conditions and really low vaccination rates,” he said.

In an emailed statement, the Ministry of Health said the Saskatchewan Health Authority has been working with northern leaders “to provide information about the importance of vaccination.”

“We continue to encourage proven public health measures, such as vaccination, regular hand washing, physical distancing and masking,” reads the statement.

But Meili said more needs to be done.

“The efforts clearly haven’t been made or what has been tried hasn’t been successful,” he said.

Meili said the province has set restrictions for specific areas of the province before, such as in Regina, and should consider doing that in the north.

The provincial government said it “continues to monitor these situations” and considers these types of restrictions based on the recommendations of local medical health officers.

The Canadian Red Cross provided services to wildfire evacuees from Buffalo River. In total, the Red Cross assisted over 1,700 people from six communities.

Wright said the MLTC’s security team has been helping to deliver food, do laundry, and even delivered a Play Station to help people in isolation in hotel rooms.

“Normally the First Nation had the province managing the evacuation, but things are changing in Saskatchewan and First Nations are building the capacity to manage their own evacuation,” he said.

“It’s very inspiring.”