A forest fire that's threatening two small northern Saskatchewan communities is growing.
According to Steve Roberts, Executive director of wildfire management for Saskatchewan, the fire has swelled to 4,400 hectares. This is a significant increase from Monday morning when the fire first sparked.
The problem he says, is the weather. “We had a wind shift, very dry conditions and humidity in the low teens and temperatures in the 20's. This creates a cross-over effect which is very volatile fire behaviour.”
He believes the fickle conditions are key to the fire's behaviour, growth and the reason why it's been so difficult to contain.
Roberts confirmed that the province was successfully able to evacuate almost all of the 1,200 residents and no injuries were sustained. At this point, there haven't been any damages to structures either.
Many residents were air-lifted to Prince Albert or Saskatoon and are staying in shelters.
Currently, 10 crews and three helicopters are on-site, which makes for around 70 people says Roberts. Only a handful of residents remain to assist with the fire-fighting efforts.
Already, the water bombers have managed to log 80 flight hours and pour some 400,000 gallons of water on the flames since Wednesday.
Firefighters have put up guards and control lines using the aerial tanker fleet, retardant and water supported by sprinklers on the ground. “Our primary objective has been to keep the fire out of the community,” says Roberts.
Billowing smoke is also a safety concern. “It's one of the main reasons why residents will have to wait to return home.”
A shift in the wind direction can either be helpful or a detriment Roberts believes. “With a fire this large, a drying trend followed by high winds could cause the fire to progress. Should we get cool weather and low winds, we might be able to put it out in a timely manner.”
At this point, officials aren't sure when the flames will stop flickering. “We won't be prepared to make that assessment until we see how much progress we can make to supress the fire as well as how long these weather patterns will maintain.”
Investigators are currently on the scene determining the cause. But Roberts says at this point, “the fire looks to be man-made.”
Forest fires are a common occurrence in the spring. Often times, the vegetation is extremely dry, but the ground remains frozen. “Depending on the weather conditions, large fires can spark and spread quickly in the Boreal forest,” asserts Roberts.
Wollaston Lake and Hatchet Lake First Nation are located about 840 km north of Saskatoon and are only accessible by air.