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With no water or equipment, Sask. man stares down wildfire and wins


A Saskatchewan man literally fought fire with fire in order to spare his cabin from an encroaching blaze.

Like others in the area whose properties are under threat by the raging Shaw wildfire, Louis McCallum has been checking on his cabin near Buffalo Narrows on Churchill Lake in northwestern Saskatchewan.

Earlier this week, he arrived to find "one big wall of flame" roaring towards his family cabin. 

"We had no equipment, nothing," McCallum told CTV News by phone.

But McCallum, who spent decades fighting wildfires, had a trick up his sleeve.

"Okay, now what do you do as a last option? Just what you call a backfire," McCallum said, estimating the flames were roughly 90 metres away.

A 'backfire' is an advanced firefighting technique that experts warn should only be attempted by those with a great deal of experience. People like McCallum. 

"You start to light up the edge of the perimeter in the direction where the fire's coming. Now the main fire is so hot it'll suck [the new fire] toward the main fire," McCallum explained.

"The idea there is to burn up as much fuel around your cabin as possible."

If the technique is successful, it halts the wildfire in its tracks.

McCallum said the maneuver saved his cabin, but he lost some structures near the edge of the property.

"There was nothing I could do. Because they were too close to the perimeter.".

The experience has left McCallum frustrated that he had to face the blaze head-on.

McCallum feels local fire crews were left to grapple with the emerging fire for too long before more skilled "Type 1" firefighters were deployed by the province.

"They are the teams that have the professionalism — that know how to handle these big fires," McCallum said.

Another Buffalo Narrows resident wasn't so lucky.

With the help of her family, Marlene Nicholls was running a sprinkler system hooked to a gas powered pump drawing water from the lake to protect her cabin — which she was transitioning to a year-round residence after selling her home.

"It was basically a place for everybody to come, and in the last probably five years I started having moon ceremonies, sweat lodge and other women ceremonies to assist in the wellbeing of people," she said.

Nicholls is unsure if the sprinklers failed somehow, but on May 12, after leaving her cabin late in the morning, she returned in the early afternoon to find it totally destroyed.

"It was like a horror movie. Everything was smoky," she said.

A composite image shows Marlene Nicholls' cabin and what remained of it after it was destroyed by wildfire. (Courtesy Marlene Nicholls)

"That image is etched in my mind right now. I can see it smouldering. The only thing that was left standing was the teepee pole structure."

Nicholls also has questions about the province's response, namely how a localized fire was able to grow into a sprawling inferno.

"The Shaw fire began at Kazan Lake, just kind of at the very tip of of the lake and it has now spread," she said,

"If they would have put out that Kazan Lake fire when it first started."

Nicholls, along with others in the area CTV News spoke with, worries that the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency (SPSA) is guided by a hands-off "let it burn '' policy when it comes to wildfires that aren't immediately threatening communities.

"There is no 'let it burn' policy," SPSA president Marlo Pritchard said during a wildfire update Wednesday afternoon.

It's a notion Pritchard has pushed back against during previous wildfire seasons.

He said fires are "very quickly resourced" and attributed the spread of the Shaw fire and other blazes burning in Saskatchewan to the drought-like conditions the province is facing.

"When the fuels are this dry, they spread very quickly so we do put as many resources as we safely can every time, especially for ones that are threatening communities," Pritchard said.

During the SPSA update, Pritchard said the Shaw fire had grown to 77,000 hectares — tripling in size since Monday when it sat at roughly 25,000 hectares.

As of late Wednesday night there were 24 active wildfires in Saskatchewan. Most of the province was still under an Environment Canada advisory warning of poor air quality due to smoke. 

Pritchard said the SPSA had no confirmed reports of lost structures due to the fires, but acknowledged the information may not have "rolled up" to the agency yet.

In addition to Nicholls, another Buffalo Narrows resident told CTV News that he lost his property to the fire — his tourist lodge.

"Me and my son fought the fire, we barely got out of there alive," John Waite told CTV News.

"The flames are so intense and on us right now. I didn't even have time to grab guns or any valuables. Nothing. Just came up on us so quick and hot," he said.

A mound of ash is all that remained of John Waite's tourist lodge after it was consumed by wildfire. (Courtesy John Waite)

Waite estimates he has invested $250,000 in the lodge over the years and is unsure how he'll recover.

"It's going to be really tough this summer. It's going to be hard for me to make my living but I'll just try now," Waite said.

--With files from Tyler Barrow and Stacey Hein Top Stories

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