The government of Saskatchewan is scrapping a controversial policy that has been used to prioritize forest fires.

Under the policy, the province could let forest fires burn unless they were within 20 kilometres of a community.

Many northerners criticized that policy during last year’s record-setting season of wildfires.

They said once a fire was within 20 kilometres of a community it was too late to stop it.

The change was announced Tuesday by Environment Minister Herb Cox.

“It may, in fact, end up with us attacking, sooner, some fires maybe that we didn’t before. But we’re still going to look at the same criteria, the same flexibility — that our priorities are going to be for human life, for communities and for critical infrastructure,” said Cox at a news conference.

The province is also hiring eight more seasonal firefighting crews in the north and buying some new equipment.

It will put an air tanker and crews in place earlier this year as well, because of the perceived fire risk. Much of northern Saskatchewan has experienced warmer temperatures and below-normal snowfall this winter.

Other changes pledged include:

  • review of evacuation processes.
  • improved training.
  • upgrades to weather stations.

More local hires needed

Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief Tammy Cook-Searson said she is glad the policy is being scrapped.

“Sometimes some of the fires are outside of the 20 kilometre zone. Maybe it doesn’t look like they’ll threaten the community, but then within a day or two, then they’ll start threatening the community,” Cook-Searson said.

But she said there are still other changes that need to happen.

Her priority is hiring more local workers to help fight the fires.

“We know the land, we know the area and our people want to be home protecting our lands. They want to help fight the forest fire,” she said.

According to Cook-Searson, before the “let it burn” policy came into place, between 2,000 to 5,000 locals used to be hired to fight fires each season.

Last season, however, she said there were only 600 people hired by June, and only half of them were local.

“There were people brought in from different countries that were fighting our forest fires in northern Saskatchewan, when we have the man power and people that are willing to work,” she said.