One of the busiest wildfire seasons in Saskatchewan history is officially over.
The Wildfire Management branch of the Ministry of Environment put out the last two remaining fires with little fanfare roughly two weeks ago.
It was a quiet end to a year that showed signs of trouble right from the start.
“We got an early kick to the season,” Wildfire Management executive director Steve Roberts said on Monday. “The spring conditions came a little earlier and were a little drier. We actually saw a fair number of larger type fires early in the spring. (The) Torch Fire, Ridge Fire, fire up by Black Lake, they came earlier in the season for us, giving an indicator that things were a little drier, a little more volatile.”
In the end, wildfire crews, rural and municipal firefighters and the army tackled a whopping 723 fires this past summer, 138 of which were larger than 100 hectares in size. More than 700,000 hectares of timber burned in full response zones alone.
Roberts called it the severest wildfire season in Saskatchewan since he started working with Wildfire Management 11 years ago.
“We did have a number of fires. We did have big fires and we had the conflicting problem of smoke with those fires,” he said. “Probably the biggest driver of what was different this season is the proximity of those fires to critical infrastructure in communities. That, we had not seen in years.”
People poured into Prince Albert and other cities as evacuees from northern communities began to make their way south. Eventually, space at emergency evacuation shelters ran out and new ones, like Rez Cross at Beardy’s, sprung up.
Roberts said that it’s something he wants to remember, but ideally not experience again. However, they’re still preparing as if it will.
“The province of Saskatchewan has 65 million hectares (of timber), so 720,000 isn’t a huge number,” he explained. “There’s lots of forest out there.”
The last fire to die out was the Senyk fire, just west of Pinehouse. At its peak, the Senyk Fire burned down power lines into the community, making things difficult for emergency crews stationed there. The community went without power for more than a week after efforts to restore the line were abandoned due to health concerns.
September, rains, combined with cooler temperatures, mostly put the fire out on its own.
Now that the season is over, the review process begins. Roberts said they’re just starting to conduct their own internal review, and any changes will be ready for implementation before next spring.
However, there is one important change Roberts would like to see. During the summer there were concerns about how Wildfire Management deploys its resources. Roberts said it’s important to remember that in emergency situations like this past year, they can’t cover every fire the way they want to, so they have to prioritize certain fires over others.
Roberts said firefighting efforts would be useless is if was a giant free-for-all. They’re difficult decisions, but ones that have to be made.
“We make the best decisions we can to protect the things of highest value. Does that mean we can protect everything all the time? Unfortunately that’s not the case.”