WAITING FOR THE SMOKE TO CLEAR
Pelican Narrows, Birch Portage residents bused to Saskatoon, P.A. shelters, hotels
Wildfire evacuees from Pelican Narrows sheltered at the Henk Ruys Soccer Centre could soon be joined by many more as a state of emergency is declared in the northeast.
A state of emergency has been declared for Pelican Narrows and nearby Birch Portage in northeastern Saskatchewan, as dry, windy conditions have closed highways 106 and 135, prompting Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation leaders to urge all residents to leave.
Convoys of private vehicles and buses carried 690 evacuees to Saskatoon on Tuesday night and more are expected to be led out by provincial highways pilot vehicles when cooler evening and early morning conditions allow, reporters were told in a telephone briefing Wednesday.
Among the Pelican Narrows evacuees who awoke in Saskatoon on Wednesday were 493 at the Henk Ruys Soccer Centre, including Mardell Custer.
“It was pretty scary with the fire and the smoke close by, and police going around, sirens,” Custer said.
She arrived at 4 a.m. Wednesday with her three children and two grandchildren, leaving behind greyish brown smoke and floating ash.
“Yesterday I wasn’t that worried because I didn’t know it was that serious until in the evening, when (the evacuation) became mandatory. We packed up, went to the school, got in the bus and came here,” she said.
She’s worried about the town and her two sons who stayed behind.
“I’m just wondering if they’re OK, and how is the fire doing now, and when we’ll go home.”
Local officials have gone door to door in Pelican Narrows, urging everyone to leave now in case the roads become impassable, but an unknown number of people have refused, signing waivers to acknowledge they’ve been warned, said Prince Albert Grand Council Vice-Chief Harold Linklater.
Among those staying is Linklater’s brother, who is in his late 60s and is willing to leave by boat if necessary.
Linklater said he is “very worried” about his brother and the potential effects of the heavy smoke.
Two band councillors, Weldon McCallum and Myrtle Ballantyne, have also stayed behind to maintain a leadership presence, Linklater said.
He hopes the people of Prince Albert and Saskatoon will “have an open-arms approach to our evacuees and give them comfort,” he added.
Some evacuees stayed in hotels, including 197 in Saskatoon and 16 in Prince Albert.
The emergency has arisen later in the fire season than usual. Early summer plans to use school gyms as congregate shelters have been shelved because classes are set to begin at the schools and no other facilities have been arranged, said emergency social services coordinator Deanna Valentine.
The department is confident there are enough hotel rooms in Prince Albert and Saskatoon to shelter the 600 or so more residents that could arrive overnight.
Dwayne McKay, commissioner of emergency management and fire safety for the province, said Wednesday morning that an estimated 3,000 people remained in the stricken communities.
An unknown number are expected to stay with family and friends and those in Saskatoon are urged to register at the soccer centre, while those in Prince Albert should check in at the Chief Joseph Custer urban reserve, where food vouchers and access to other supports are available.
It was pretty scary with the fire and the smoke close by, and police going around, sirens.
Pelican Narrows evacuee Trisha Sewap pushes her little sister Annie Sewap into the emergency evacuation shelter at Henk Ruys Soccer Centre on Wednesday.