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La Loche latest to evacuate in early start to Sask. wildfire season

High temperatures and winds are fuelling a wildfire in northern Saskatchewan that has forced the evacuation of two communities during the first week of May. 

Clearwater River Dene Nation was placed under a mandatory evacuation order Wednesday night, followed 24 hours later by the neighbouring village of La Loche.

La Loche mayor Georgina Jolibois spoke with CBC News from her home shortly after a state of emergency was declared in the village Thursday evening. At that time, the community was preparing for a handful of buses to take residents to Prince Albert overnight, before heading to Regina in the morning. 

“If we evacuate everyone, we’re looking at about 3,000 people,” Jolibois said. 

“I don’t believe everyone will leave. There will be people who will stay behind to look after their homes and their pets.”

La Loche reached a high of 27 C on Thursday, compared to its average high of 12.9 C this time of year, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada. The village also experienced wind gusts up to 30 kilometres per hour.

“It’s a very vulnerable state that we are in,” Jolibois said. “It’s happening so fast and it’s extremely volatile.” 

The mayor noted that several local fire crews, along with Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency (SPSA), are working to contain the wildfire. Helicopters and planes have also been deployed to bucket water on the flames.

WATCH | Residents of Clearwater River Dene Nation who were evacuated due to wildfire speak to CBC’s Bonnie Allen in Meadow Lake, Sask. on May 4, 2023.

In an emailed update Thursday, the SPSA said it is supporting the community with its evacuation.

“Residents are being asked to register before they leave at the community hall if travelling by bus or at the Ducharme Elementary School if using their own vehicle,” the SPSA said.

“Those travelling on their own are being asked to follow the buses when they leave the community and are being encouraged to use the buses provided.”

The SPSA said it will provide an update on the situation to media on Friday morning.

‘Definitely unseasonal’

Teacher Paul Haynes was canoeing with students when he first saw a thick, black plume of smoke above the trees in Clearwater River Dense Nation. Shortly after, the evacuation order was in place.

“By the time we left, it was getting pretty smoky in there and hard to breathe,” Haynes said.

“Spring melt should still be happening and there should be still moisture on the ground, but everything was so tinder dry.”

Haynes packed camping supplies and some belongings, then drove himself, his daughter and their dog to Meadow Lake, about 300 kilometres south.

“[It’s] life in the north. I guess that’s what you’ve got be prepared for. It’s just a little bit crazy that it’s May 3rd, and we’re dealing with that,” he said. 

“This is not something you want to see anytime of the year, but when you’re talking early May, it’s definitely unseasonal.”

A man wearing a t-shirt and a baseball hat stands in the doorway of a hotel room. Behind him, his teenage daughter sits on a bed with various belongings on the other bed and on the floor.
Clearwater River Dene Nation resident Paul Haynes pictured with his daughter and some of their belongings at a Meadow Lake hotel after the First Nation was placed under a mandatory evacuation order due to wildfire on May 3, 2023. (Bonnie Allen/CBC News)
An evacuation command centre had been set up at the Clearwater River Dene Nation community hall Wednesday, with buses taking around 50 people to Meadow Lake and Lloydminister. 

By Thursday afternoon, the First Nation posted on Facebook that all spaces were full in Meadow Lake. More buses took people out of the community in the evening; however, CBC News has been unable to confirm how many people have left.

According to the 2021 Census, the First Nation has a population of around 830 people.

Anyone remaining in the community was asked to head to Lloydminster, about a six-hour drive south, as the fire posed a risk to the highway. 

“It’s just hour by hour, day by day right now,” Haynes said.

A woman stands holding a garden hose spool in one arm and propping the back winder of a station wagon with her other hand. Inside the vehicle are personal belongings.
Clearwater River Dene Nation resident Marsha Morgan with some of her belongings in Meadow Lake. The First Nation was placed under an evacuation order due to wildfire on May 3, 2023. (Bonnie Allen/CBC News)

Marsha Morgan — a student services teacher in Clearwater River, who has lived there for 20 years — was in Saskatoon with her husband and two children when the evacuation order came down.

“That kind of led to a number of frantic phone calls to figure out what was going on. We have three dogs that are still up there,” said Morgan, who is staying with friends in Meadow Lake.

Morgan said friends still in the area were able to make arrangements for her dogs and grab a few of their belongings.

She echoed Haynes’ remarks, telling CBC News the early start to wildfire season is worrisome to her.

“This is really unusual weather for this time in May. It’s not often that we have weather that is this hot and dry this early in the month,” Morgan said.

“That makes us a little bit nervous about what the rest of the year is going to look like.” 

Indigenous communities disproportionately affected by disasters: expert 

Lilia Yumagulova, a researcher with the University of Saskatchewan’s Indigenous Studies department, said climate change and its disasters are disproportionately affecting Indigenous communities in Saskatchewan.

“Systemic underfunding in their emergency management system and funding system has not really kept pace with the acceleration growth of disasters and emergencies,” Yumagulova said.

Yumagulova noted the Saskatchewan Emergency First Nations Emergency Management team has been doing great work with the resources available to it, but more outside funding is needed.

“This is the new norm, emergency management is just as important as housing or water services,” Yumagulova said.

“It is an essential service that every year people will be safe with, there will be more emergencies with climate change.”

Yumagulova added that it’s necessary for emergency management in Indigenous communities to be Indigenous-led. 

“Communities know what their risk are, they know what their needs are, they know what their members need,” Yumagolova said.

She also said there needs to be dedicated positions for First Nations Emergency Management and enough funding to be proactive in addition to reactive to crises.

According to the most recent Auditor General’s report, Indigenous Services Canada is spending 3.5 times more money on responding to and recovering from emergencies than supporting the communities to prevent or prepare for them.

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