With wildfires threatening towns and villages across northern Saskatchewan, the mayor of La Loche is criticizing the provincial government for not fighting them more aggressively.

There have been more than 520 forest fires so far this year, about three times as many the same time last year.

They have forced more 5,000 people to leave their homes due to heavy smoke and the proximity of the fires.

The communities themselves haven’t burned, although the smoke is so intense in certain areas, it’s considered a major health risk.

Meanwhile, La Loche Mayor Georgina Jolibois says a long-running government policy is putting the communities at risk.

According to the Environment Ministry, fires near communities get the highest priority, but the ministry doesn’t extinguish them until they’re within 20 kilometres.

That’s too close, Jolibois says.

“Throughout the whole 10 years, it has been brought up over and over and over again and the government refuses to budge on their thinking toward fighting fires,” Jolibois said.

Jolibois says the problem is that by the time a wildfire hits the 20-kilometre perimeter, it’s too late to stop it.

She wants that ring expanded.

‘It makes an awful lot of sense’

Professor Toddi Steelman, the executive director of the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan, is one of the leading experts in the country on wildfires.

Steelman said she understands from a mayor’s standpoint why that 20-kilometres radius would make communities a bit uncomfortable. However, she said the guideline is not a hard and fast rule.

“It’s been policy for quite some time — and given the kinds of resources that need to be allocated — to protect multiple communities,” she said. “I think it makes an awful lot of sense.”

Steelman said the fire management people look at each fire on a case by case basis.

“I would say the Saskatchewan policy is incredibly farsighted in terms of how it is thinking about wildfire,” she said. “While the threat feels imminent and at their doorstep, fire management is looking at a variety of communities across the north and managing resources appropriate to protect everybody.”​

115 wildfires burning on Thursday

La Loche, which is about 600 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon, has a population of about 2,600. Over the past week, most of its residents have been evacuated to Red Cross shelters in more southern communities.

In their daily wildfire update on Thursday, provincial officials said they’re optimistic conditions are improving, with more rain, lower temperatures and lighter winds.

The government has put out a request for people not to visit fire zones unless they have official business there.

On Thursday, there were 115 wildfires burning, 35 of them considered out of control.