Northern residents return as fires rage nearby
Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation chief Peter Beatty has lifted the general evacuation order for Pelican Narrows following recommendations of the province and its ministries.
The order has been lifted for general community members and priority 3 residents. The evacuation order remains in place for priority 1 and 2 persons due to concerns about smoke.
According to provincial emergency management officials, all of the requirements set out by the community as to when it would be safe return have been met. That includes a lack of direct fire threat to access roads, lack of direct fire threat to the community and vital infrastructure, air quality within acceptable limits and community services in place. All those conditions have been met. While there has been no significant rain in the area, work to contain the fire was successful, stabilizing the situation near the community and critical infrastructure. More favourable weather also helped, as cooler temperatures and lighter winds have given firefighters a bit of a reprieve.
Priority one and two people include pregnant or new moms, as well as those with chronic heart and lung conditions. The band has also decided to keep families with children under the age of 2 evacuated. While officials don’t have an exact number of people in that category, they do anticipate at least half of the evacuees will be able to return home.
Whether it’s safe for those people to return will be based on the air quality. According to a spokesperson from the Ministry of Health, air quality inside the fresh air shelter in Pelican Narrows, where an air scrubber is in place, is about 12.7 ppm. Nearby health clinics are at 30 ppm, while outside it’s about 65.
“Those are reasonable,” the spokesperson said. “When you get to the range of 100-150, it affects those with respiratory problems.”
While the air quality is fine right now, shifting winds still bring the potential of heavier smoke blowing in. That heavier smoke is what causes issues for those with health needs.
The cooler weather could also kick up extra smoke.
“While this is good for firefighting, it will cause a bit of an inversion, so we expect smoke will be dense in that area,” said Duane McKay, director of emergency management. “We have established air purification systems in Sandy Bay, Pelican Narrows and Deschambault Lake, so there will be some places for respite for individuals going back if they need to get out of that while we experience heavy smoke conditions.”
The Wilkins fire, which is burning about 14 km south of Pelican Narrows, has been contained. The southeast corner of the Preston fire, about 3 km north of Pelican Narrows, has also been secured. The Granite fire is still and threatening Highway 106, along with the small communities of Jan Lake, Birch Portage and Tyrrell Lake.
“There are some heavy fuel accumulations there that are smoking really heavy, and a lot of fire in and around those locations,” explained Scott Wasylenchuk, director of wildfire operations.
“We’re trying to secure that so when the weather changes it can’t move back into that community. There’s still a direct threat, and we’ve got a lot of people and equipment in there right now. We’re trying to tie that all off before we give the all clear.”
Some of those people and pieces of equipment have been relocated from other areas. Containment lines have been completed around the Wilkins fire, and significant work has been done to contain the Preston fire as well.
While wildfire management focuses on controlling the Preston and Granite fires, government relations and Emergency Social Services (ESS) is focusing on helping people get home. The first night the evacuation order was lifted, about 39 personal vehicles returned to Pelican Narrows, and about 13 to Sandy Bay. Thursday plans were in place to run busses all day to get as many people home as possible. Evacuees were given a bagged lunch and some water before departing reception centres.
While people are being allowed to return to Pelican Narrows, the highway, from the junction of Highways 135 and 106, is still blocked and restricted. Convoys of up to 60 vehicles at a time are being escorted to help people get home. There are no specific times for those escorts. They will leave as vehicles pile up. The RCMP, ministry of highways and wildfire management are coordinating the escorts to ensure safety, as there is still fire and smoke in the area.
ESS is also continuing to offer support to residents evacuated from Jan Lake, Birch Portage and Tyrrell Lake, as well as medical priority residents of Pelican Narrows.
Pelican Narrows schools will re-open Monday.
Any evacuees who left the family pet behind when they fled wildfires have nothing to worry about, provincial officials said.
A team of volunteers went around to homes daily to provide food and water to pets.
Food supplies were shipped to the community daily. According to McKay, over 400 pounds of dog food has been sent to Pelican Narrows this week alone.
Pets looked after while residents gone
A fire burns near Pelican Narrows.