Sask. agency denies claims of 'let it burn policy' as petition circulates to save Indigenous land from wildfire
PRINCE ALBERT -- The Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency (SPSA) is denying claims circulating in an online petition that the government has a policy of letting wildfires burn unless they’re threatening communities.
The petition to end the supposed “let it burn” policy states the lack of response in remote areas is ruining Indigenous land, trap lines and cabins, leaving community members to put themselves in danger and protect these resources on their own.
It was launched by Rebecca Sylvestre, who’s from Turnor Lake. She said she first took firefighter training through the province back in the 1980s, and hasn’t been called in to help fight wildfires since 2001.
“Our land needs to be saved because we have children growing up that are going to live sustainably off these lands. If we have no land left, we have no trap lines left, where are we going to teach our children?” she questioned.
She said she wants the province to bring in more local firefighters, like it did when she first began firefighting.
“It created jobs, it saved our wilderness. It did so much for us,” said Sylvestre.
“It’s just something written on your resume that you’ve never been able to experience because you can’t go on the fire line anymore.”
Her dad, Ron Desjardin, spent three days with his brother fighting a fire that was threatening their cabin. They also lost their trap line, which has been passed on through generations.
Sylvestre said she’s sent the petition to several northern communities, including driving to La Loche herself, and will continue collecting signatures into September. She said she also has the support of Athabasca MLA Buckley Belanger.
Steve Roberts, vice-president of operations with the SPSA, said the province responded to wildfires based by zones up until 2015.
That policy has since been scrapped, but he said their response is still about prioritizing protecting communities and critical infrastructure.
"It doesn't mean that we don't fight fires that only pose threat, for instance, to commercial timber or maybe just a highway, where there's no communities nearby. We still set those priorities, especially when we're busy, they become extremely important,” said Roberts.
“Let it burn policy implies that nothing happens – we don’t know what’s happening, we don’t do anything.”
Roberts said the SPSA has been in contact with Indigenous leaders, and has recruited trained firefighters to help protect their own Indigenous communities.
He said the SPSA has not had to recruit crews from outside of Saskatchewan.
OVER 100 WILDFIRES STILL ACTIVE
As of Thursday afternoon, the SPSA says 130 wildfires are active in Saskatchewan.
Eighteen of those are not contained, meaning the fire is expected to grow. Eighty-five are still being assessed and crews are focused on protecting values, like cabins and other infrastructure, for 21 of the fires.
The SPSA’s latest update lists four “wildfires of note” near Stony Rapids, Grandmother’s Bay, Stanley Mission and Smeaton.
“We’ve had no major rain events. We’ve had scattered showers, we’ve had small systems, but no significant rain events to really knock those (fires back),” said Roberts.
“Even though we’re able to put 15 fires out, in the next two-day period we’ve got another 15 new ones. It’s been sort of a pretty busy grind for the last five weeks.”
The Air Quality Index for Saskatchewan lists Saskatoon, Regina and Prince Albert as high risk.