Year in Review: Waterhen wildfires force evacuations

By Tyler Marr
December 26, 2018 - 2:00pm

As the year draws to a close, battlefordsNOW is taking a look back at some of the most impactful stories of 2018, as selected by News Director Tyler Marr.

Wildfire season came early to Northern Saskatchewan, sparking massive blazes outside both Meadow Lake and Prince Albert days apart in May.

On May 12, a fire broke out south of the village of Holbein, which is approximately 30 kilometres west of Prince Albert, sending thick black and grey smoke plumes into the sky that could be seen from the city.

Days later, an uncontained wildfire started burning west of the community of Waterhen Lake. Community leaders said they were actively working with all parties to ensure the safety of the community. It was not immediately clear if any infrastructure was at risk.

On May 14, residents and cabin owners from Jeanette Lake were asked to leave. Randy Songer, president of the cabin owners association for Jeannette Lake, said sprinklers were set up behind cabins on Monday to soak the ground, which saved some structures from burning.

Thirty residents of Waterhen Lake First Nation were evacuated due to smoke from the fire burning on the lake's west side. The evacuees, which were mainly people with health conditions or small children, were sent to Meadow Lake and placed in the care of the Red Cross.

The 1,400-hectare wildfire, eventually branded ‘Tuff’ by the Government of Saskatchewan’s wildfire management officials, was still uncontained days later as fire crews battled the blaze with helicopters and water tankers.

But high winds and dry conditions continued to fan flames despite the best efforts of firefighters to mop up the blaze and eventually forced residents in the community of nearly 900 people from their homes. They first received the order around 1 p.m. on May 15. 

 

 

A total of nine buses and drivers from the Northwest School Division were sent out to the community to bring residents into town.

Waterhen resident Dale Martell said the afternoon was a rush of activity for him and his family of seven.

“This is something new to a lot of us, we haven’t had to evacuate before,” Martell said. “We’ll just make do with what we’ve got. Packed our bags, and away we went, left our homes, and locked them up. With babies and kids, it’s stressful.”

Elders and the chronically ill stayed in Meadow Lake hotels, while eight families stayed in North West College's student housing. The remaining community members were in Saskatoon, either at the Henk Ruys Soccer Centre or nearby hotels. 

 

 

Come May 17, the Tuff fire grew to over 2,600 hectares though no structures were lost at that point.

Volunteers from Meadow Lake assisted with animal rescue efforts and registered at least 46 dogs and one cat.

After a very busy few days, citizens evacuated from Waterhen Lake First Nation were allowed to go back home on May 18. While the imminent threat of nearby flames were controlled, there was still quite a bit of smoke in the area so Elders and the chronically ill remained at hotels in Meadow Lake.

Ministry of Environment officials said the Tuff fire, at this point, had stretched across roughly 5,200 hectares. Sprinklers remained set up to protect remote structures in the area as firefighters, heavy equipment, and air tankers, continued their work.

Steve Roberts, executive director of wildfire management with the province said the fire was worked on by over 250 personnel, 17 pieces of heavy equipment, nine helicopters, and air tankers, as required.

A week later, the Tuff fire continued to rage in Meadow Lake Provincial Park, growing to over 6,528 hectares and claiming 13 cabins in the Flotten Lake subdivision.

Meadow Lake’s Kim Ackerman was travelling abroad with her parents who built a cabin at the lake over 40 years ago. She heard the news late Sunday from her husband Greg and other Flotten-based families.

She said the word devastated wasn’t sufficient enough to describe the heartbreak she felt.

“Words can’t express how saddened we are by the loss of our cabin,” she said. “Luckily no one was injured, but countless items that can’t be replaced were lost.”

Aside from the many memories made over the years, she said the area was beautiful, and those who spent time at the lake have been close-knit neighbours for years.

Wet weather in the days to follow finally offered marginal reprive for fire crews battling the flames, though a bounty of heavy and air equipment continued to attempt to hold the 65 square kilometre blaze.

By June 1, many fire bans for the Meadow Lake region were called off as cooler, wetter weather moved in and assisted in subduing the flames.

 

tyler.marr@jpbg.ca

On Twitter: @JournoMarr

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