Slow wildfire season a relief for northern Saskatchewan

About a third of the average number of wildfires burned in northern Saskatchewan this year, despite earlier predictions of a high-risk season.

That’s a relief for residents who escaped the year without any major evacuations, said Steve Roberts, the province’s executive director of wildfire management. So far, there have been roughly 120 fires compared to the five-year average of about 400. Most have been small and short-term.

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The season’s cooler temperatures and increased precipitation helped, while northern travel restrictions and closed provincial parks meant fewer human-caused fires. The ratio between the two causes tends to be roughly even, but he expects more human-caused fires as hunters and campers go on the land this fall, Roberts said.

“We can’t forecast every fire season. We basically manage the fire season as it occurs and we have to be prepared for that, regardless of how that turns out.”

The only significant fire of the season blazed in the Fort à la Corne forest in May, covering about 40,900 hectares in its final area, he said. It also burned earlier in the season, giving firefighters the chance to learn new procedures to work under COVID-19 restrictions.

That included precautions like packaging individual meals and holding morning briefings remotely while following normal health guidelines.

Evacuations were also limited, he said. For the Fort à la Corne fire, smoke issues forced a handful of people to leave James Smith Cree Nation for Prince Albert. They returned the next day.

That low number of evacuations relieved concerns about displacement exposing people to higher risks of contracting COVID-19.

At the beginning of the season, Roberts said public safety and health officials developed strategies for organizing evacuations with lower risk of spreading the virus.

That could include recommending residents shelter in place instead of the additional risk of placing evacuees on busses and temporary housing, “where the COVID risk may outweigh the risk of the fire threat or the flood threat,” he said.

University of Saskatchewan professor Greg Poelzer, who studies northern governance, said the north was fortunate those evacuations never happened. A heightened fire season could mean up to a third of the population in the north would be displaced.

High-population evacuations carried significant risk of spreading COVID-19, in addition to the normal stress of a fire threatening a community and residents leaving on short notice, he said.

“From a mental health perspective, just reducing that anxiety was huge — let alone (avoiding) the potential damage to fish camps and trapping blocks and community infrastructure.”

Poelzer cautioned, however, that one year won’t reverse the need to prepare for increased instances of wildfires.

“One season a trend does not make.”

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