A small fire near the Denesuline communities of Wollaston Lake and Hatchet Lake First Nation in northern Saskatchewan last week quickly grew out of control, spreading to within 50 meters of the community’s airport and forcing the evacuation of the entire town.
The fire started on the evening of May 30, and had grown to 4,000 hectares and covered 20 square kilometers by June 1.
Evacuation of the community was hampered by smoky conditions that prevented planes from landing or taking off.
The first few hundred priority people were evacuated from the community using aircraft permanently in Wollaston Lake on May 31. By the afternoon of June 1, 600 people remained in the community.
While waiting for evacuation, residents gathered in the Wollaston Lake school’s gymnasium where air-conditioning filtered the smoke from the air.
Canadian military backup was called in on the evening of June 1 to help with the final evacuations. The last 600 residents were evacuated by military planes flying back and forth between Wollaston Lake and La Ronge, Saskatchewan overnight.
“The Canadian Forces is always ready to provide its unique capabilities in service of our fellow Canadians in their times of need,” Lt.-Gen. Walter Semianiw, commander of Canada Command, said in a news release. “I am proud of the speed and efficiency displayed by all personnel involved in this important mission.”
Four CC-130 Hercules aircraft and four CH-146 Griffon helicopters were used to evacuate the community.
Each Hercules can carry up to 96 passengers, while a Griffon can take six to 10, depending on load and configuration.
On June 3 officials stated the fire had come within few hundred meters of the community school, but no buildings were destroyed and no one was hurt.
Officials with the Saskatchewan government were calling the blaze human-caused after reporting no lightning in the region.
Air travel is the only way in or out of the community. There is a ferry service in the summer but the lake is still frozen.
Evacuated residents were bussed from La Ronge to Saskatoon where they now wait in emergency shelters.