'We're losing our livelihoods': Northern Sask. wildfires ripping through traditional Indigenous lands
PRINCE ALBERT -- Ron and Al Desjardin don’t run to the grocery store when they need something to eat – instead, the brothers hit the ground to trap, hunt and pick berries and medicines.
Their traditional lands are being threatened by nearly 150 wildfires roaring through northern Saskatchewan. A fire has destroyed their trapline north of Turnor Lake, which has been passed on from their father and grandfather.
“Not only are we losing our traplines, we’re losing our livelihoods, our ability to hunt and sustain ourselves,” Ron said.
“What am I going to do now? And it’s the same for my grandchildren. Where am I going to take them now, if I want to show them where the traplines are?”
Al said he’s also lost hunting equipment set up in the bush due to the wildfires.
The two said they travelled about 70 kilometres away to protect their cabin from a nearby fire, managing to save the structure after three and a half days of work.
On their way back, flames and heavy smoke filled the air.
“We’ve got fires right across the lake here right now that we drove through yesterday, literally drove through,” Ron said.
'WE COULD BE NEXT'
One of the newest fires posing a threat to a nearby community is the White fire, which caused the Whelan Bay community to evacuate on Thursday afternoon.
The Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency (SPSA) ordered evacuees to head to Candle Lake, about 45 kilometres south.
Terry Kostyna, Candle Lake’s mayor, said they quickly got their emergency team, first responders and fire department together.
“Certainly it was a surprise to have to be handling evacuees. However, we’re a small community, but we’re a very large community,” he explained, the population increasing to between eight and 12,000 in the summer months.
“We’re large enough to be able to handle things like this.”
Kostyna said about 100 people registered as evacuated, and a small amount of those people were staying in Candle Lake in the meantime.
He said in addition to the resort village’s emergency team, many volunteers stepped up to help make things go smoothly.
“We could be next. The conditions are dry. It’s a fragile, fragile forest that we live in. It wouldn’t take much and we’d be looking for help,” said Kostyna.
BALANCING PROVINCIAL RESOURCES
According to the SPSA’s website, there are 147 active wildfires as of Friday evening. That brings the total number of wildfires in the province up to 396 so far this year, well above the five-year average.
Several communities have had to evacuate, including Dillon, St. George’s Hill, Michel Village, Buffalo River Dene Nation and Southend. Most recently, Whelan Bay and Rabbit Creek have evacuated, and the south side of Narrow Hills Provincial Park is on standby.
“We have asked them to put campers and recreational folks in the south half of the park on advisory, should that fire continue to grow,” said Steve Roberts, vice-president of operations with the SPSA.
Roberts said the province has brought in firefighters to patrol their home communities and prevent damage.
"Fifty-eight local firefighters, and that number continues to grow, have been added. We are also securing a couple engines, like pumper engines, and crews from some structural fire departments that will be deployed to assist with internal community protection, for instance at Southend or Dillon.”
He said the SPSA also brought in an aircraft from the Northwest Territories, which is being used in the La Ronge area. No national fire crews have been brought in at this time.
Fires also caused disruptions to SaskPower services in the Wollaston Lake and Hatchet Lake area. According to SaskPower’s Twitter, though, power was restored shortly before 4 p.m.
As of this morning, SaskTel services were also impacted in several communities.