Sask. crews help fight wildfires in Northwest Territories

Matt Gardner
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Saskatchewan Ministry of the Environment firefighters disembark from their plane at Prince Albert Municipal Airport on Friday after two weeks of fighting wildfires in the Northwest Territories.

A contingent of Saskatchewan Ministry of the Environment firefighters returned to their home province on Friday after two weeks of fighting wildfires in the Northwest Territories.

Hailing from all corners of Saskatchewan, the 42 firefighters landed at Prince Albert Municipal Airport eager for some well-deserved rest.

“It was a great experience,” crew member Trista Boles said. “We got a lot of experience, a lot of action … got moved around quite a bit, so saw a lot of fire, a lot of action -- a really good group of people to work with.”

During their excursion to the Northwest Territories, which included 14 days of fighting fires and two days of travel time, the firefighters spent much of their time fighting a wildfire 10 kilometres north of Yellowknife.

Working at the rear of the fire, the crews laid down hose line to control the blaze.

“There were water bombers that were bombing the fire,” crew leader Joshua Caisse recalled. “They were cooling it down for us and then we’d go in and lay hose line around the fire, and so we were trying to contain the southern part of the fire that was closest to the city of Yellowknife.”

The Saskatchewan contingent included 40 firefighters and two co-ordinators known as agency representatives, who helped supervise and assign crew members to different duties.

While the crew represented a substantial portion of the agency’s firefighters -- the Ministry of the Environment has 200 paid firefighters and 53 crews in northern communities -- Wildfire Management Program executive director Steve Roberts said the Northwest Territories mission did not impact the ability to fight fires in Saskatchewan.

“We're only looking at about 20 per cent of our total capacity and most of the fires we have are basically in the northern forested area in the far north,” Roberts said.

“So we’ve been able to manage the fires. All our aircraft of course are back in the province from their assignments, so they’ve been working, and we have access to contract crews from First Nations and northern communities as well that we also use … We have a big workforce in general, so 40 individuals isn’t a large number.”

The use of Saskatchewan firefighters outside the province is done on a voluntary basis by the Ministry, depending on external needs and their own ability to help out.

The sheer ferocity of the wildfires in the Northwest Territories meant that the assistance of Saskatchewan crew members was warmly received.

“The fire behaviour there was really different from what we've seen in years,” agency representative Shauna Boucher said.

“Their conditions were unreal,” she added. “They said that it was four times worse than they’ve ever saw in 40 years that they’ve been there. It was really bad.

The guys in the Northwest Territories were very, very played out, so they were really happy to see other people come in and help and assist. Shauna Boucher

“We had some cool weather come in, which helped a lot. The guys in the Northwest Territories were very, very played out, so they were really happy to see other people come in and help and assist.”

Caisse noted that such fire conditions were rare. He estimated that the Drought Code -- a numeric rating of average moisture content -- was approximately four times higher in the Northwest Territories than in Saskatchewan.

As part of their efforts, the Saskatchewan firefighters were divided into two groups of 20, each working on a different blaze.

Typically, crews were picked up by a helicopter and dropped near the fire with the mission of securing the line to prevent the flames from continuing in a certain direction.

“You had two crews working towards each other and just making sure that all the hot spots are out,” Boles said.

“So you go back for a few days and just walk the line and monitor and then you demobilize it … (Then) you take all the hoses down and pack them back up and put them back on the chopper and get moved to the next fire.”

Currently in her second year as a Ministry firefighter, Boles noted the differences in fighting wildfires so far north.

“It was a little bit different terrain,” she said. “I’m kind of still a newbie, so I haven’t seen a lot of fire in Saskatchewan. It’s been wet. So that was kind of an experience for me.”

“It was good to fight,” she added. “It was a little rocky … The fire would kind of take a different pattern. It would creep into crevices and stuff and just kind of snake its way (around), so you just had to be very careful to make sure you got it.”

Following their two-week shift, the Saskatchewan crews will have a few days of rest before heading back to work.

Their efforts will be needed at home, where the number of fires is currently at least 10 per cent above last year’s average.

In the last week alone, Saskatchewan has seen more than 70 fires.

“Hazards are moderate,” Roberts said. “In most parts of the province fires have remained sort of stable. Crews have been able to manage them, but it has engaged all our resources.

“That’s one of the reasons (why) when these crews come back, they’ll basically get their time off and then they’ll go probably back to their bases and start working on fires in Saskatchewan.”

Organizations: Prince Albert Municipal Airport, Ministry of the Environment, First Nations

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories, Yellowknife

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