Forest fire threatening communities growing

Crews were working feverishly at the edge of a high school sports field in northern Saskatchewan on Thursday to try to fend off a forest fire and protect two communities.

WOLLASTON LAKE, Sask. — Crews were working feverishly at the edge of a high school sports field in northern Saskatchewan on Thursday to try to fend off a forest fire and protect two communities.

Environment officials said the blaze near Wollaston Lake and the Hatchet Lake reserve had swelled to 40 square kilometres — up from five square kilometres Wednesday morning. It was fuelled by dry conditions in grass, bushes and trees.

“We had consistent 20 km/h winds, very high temperatures and low humidities. We had what we would consider rank five, which is the highest severity of fire behaviour all day (Wednesday),” said Steve Roberts, the province’s executive director of wildfire management.

The northern flank of the fire was burning at the southernmost edge of the communities — the high school property. That was the control point where firefighters were holding the line, said Roberts.

“Our focus is around the town — a small point on a big fire, but it’s also our critical priority.”

Roberts said the fire was expanding eastward, away from the communities, and wind was keeping smoke out.

It was good news for Ed Benoanie, acting chief of Hatchet Lake. He was one of about 15 residents who stayed to help with fire-fighting efforts after everyone else was airlifted out.

Benoanie said there had been fears that homes would be lost.

“(Wednesday) was like a war zone here. It was ground zero just about, but … right now we’re much safer. ”

Wollaston Lake is about 840 kilometres north of Saskatoon and can only be reached by air at this time of year.

Fifteen aircraft lifted out about 240 people Tuesday after an evacuation order came down. But smoke at the airport Wednesday hampered efforts to remove everyone. Those left behind hunkered down in two schools until military aircraft arrived to help.

Provincial fire commissioner Duane McKay said almost everyone — almost 1,200 people — had been airlifted out by Thursday morning.

Four Griffon helicopters ferried residents to Points North, on the other side of the lake, on flights that took about 20 minutes. By sunrise, evacuees were being taken to shelters in Saskatoon on the bigger Hercules aircraft, which hold 96 people each.

“They seemed tired for the most part,” said Capt. Chris Jacobson, who piloted one of the Hercules aircraft. “I think a lot of them had been up for a lot of hours, but they seemed … grateful and in generally good spirits.”

The fire near Wollaston Lake is still considered out of control. — By Jennifer Graham in Regina, with files from CJWW in Saskatoon.