(Front page splash: Robin Todd Mckenzie hoses down the fireline in the burnt forests off the road leading into the community. Photo: Jorge Barrera/APTN)
Jorge Barrera and Damian Joseph
APTN National News
LAC LA RONGE, Sask.—Once past the RCMP-operated checkpoint on Hwy 2 restricting public access to the Lac La Ronge Indian Band reserve and the town of La Ronge, Sask., one enters the staging area for a war.
Canadian Forces light armoured vehicles (LAV) and jeeps move in convoys up and down the highway, RCMP cruisers with flashing lights block side roads. Helicopters criss-cross a sky in a continual daytime haze caused by the smoke from a massive wildfire that threatens to engulf the area.
Wide swaths of forests have already been decimated by the fire on the northern outskirts of La Ronge. Wisps of smoke still rise from some areas and in others flare-ups send up plumes as firefighters beat back pockets of flame.
The only noticeable wildlife are crows swooping in and around the charred remains of trees; crows often seen battling each other because they’ve been pushed into new territories by the fire.
Lac La Ronge is now a ghost town. Yellow ribbons hang from the door knobs marking the houses of all the evacuated. In one house, a gaunt German shepherd peeks through the fence in hopes of food.
The smell of scorched forest permeates everything. Ash and dust cling to back windshields.
Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief Tammy Cook-Searson drives through its deserted streets, her phone keeps flashing with new text messages. Some are from evacuated band members with complaints, others come from officials with updates on the latest developments. She hasn’t seen her children in over eight days and she barely has time to sleep more than four hours a night.
Over 6,000 people from the six communities that make up the Lac La Ronge band have been evacuated since June 25. Lac La Ronge has a total population of about 10,000.
Three of the communities, Lac La Ronge, Sucker River and Hall Lake, are still essentially empty of their usual populace. In Grandmother’s Bay and Stanley Mission, most of the residents have returned, save the elderly, small children and the sick. The sixth community, Little Red River, has managed to escape the worst of the evacuations and the wildfire.
“I pray lots,” said Cook-Searson. “I get strength from other people. I am not alone…so many people are out there praying for us, offering us support.”
The continuing war against the wildfire forces Cook-Searson to operate on many fronts.
At one moment she’s at the Jonas Roberts community centre in Lac La Ronge dealing with the processing of evacuees. Then, hours later and about 81 kilometres northeast, she’s on a boat at midnight Monday on the Churchill River heading to survey a raging fire on Ant Island, about nine kilometres from Stanley Mission.
The Ant Island fire was initially reported on July 6 when Stanley Mission Coun. Linda Charles noticed a column of smoke. Now it’s engulfing the island.
“We are really concerned,” said Cook-Searson. “It’s already burning hot…We don’t know how far this fire is going to go or how much the community will be impacted.”
Prince Albert Grand Council vice-chief Brian Hardlotte travelled in the boat with Cook-Searson. He said the Ant Island fire “is an example of the provincial forest fire strategy that the northern people refer to as the ‘let it burn policy.’”
The provincial government has denied such a policy exists.
Earlier that night Cook-Searson drove in with a convoy of Stanley Mission residents who had been blocked from returning to their community for nine days. Some community members were blocked from returning home after they went out that day on routine errands.
The convoy travelled slowly through a surreal landscape of smoke and still burning trees on either side of the only road access leading into Stanley Mission. In some places, the smoke gathered so thick it was difficult to see the tail lights of vehicles driving mere meters ahead.
Hwy 915 has been the scene of daily battles between Stanley Mission fire crews and still smouldering blazes.
Armed with hoses hooked to pumps drawing water from rapidly drying ponds, the crews drench the latest burn lines in hopes of preventing flare-ups. Even after extensive soaking, smoke continues to seep through the wet earth, the fire smouldering and stirring underground. The crews then move in with shovels to throw dirt on the areas in hopes of smothering the flames for good.
Sometimes, a flare-up will suddenly burst, as happened Sunday, triggering a fire that can run for several kilometres that needed water bombers to douse.
“We’re losing right now, can’t seem to win,” said Robin Todd McKenzie, as he tried to hose down a section of burn.
One of the firefighters, Daniel Cook, said his girlfriend was evacuated from Hall Lake and he doesn’t know where she is. Cook was recently trained as a firefighter by Stanley Mission and has been two days on the job.
“We’ll probably be here all summer,” he said.
The Stanley Mission crew has also bolstered firefighting efforts in their sister community of Sucker River, which sits about 50 kilometres to the west.
Henry Ratt said the Stanley Mission crew likely saved Sucker River when firefighters there found themselves on their heels as a tendril of the wildfire threatened to enter the community about a week ago.
“They saved us, they helped. Without them we wouldn’t be here,” said Ratt, after a day of fighting fires near Sucker River.
Sucker River gifted moose meat to Stanley Mission in a gesture of gratitude.
Ratt said Saskatchewan fire officials have hindered their efforts to protect the community, initially running interference telling the local crew the fire was the province’s job.
“They came in there and said it was their fire, their responsibility,” said Ratt.
When Stanley Mission came to the aide of Sucker River, the crews managed to fight off the flames by rejigging a sprinkler system installed by the province. The province, however, had scolded the community previously for rearranging the system.
“They told us, ‘If you touch these…we’ll pull out all our equipment,’” said Ratt. “But when the time came, when the fire was approaching, Stanley people, and everyone else, used those to fight the fire.”
Ratt said provincial officials have tried to clear-out the community five times since the evacuations started.
“First it was the fire chief from La Ronge, after that (provincial) employees,” said Ratt. “They wanted us out of there, the helicopters were circling and telling us to get us out of there.”
But that’s never going to happen, he said.
“We will almost do anything to protect what we believe is ours and our community is so important. What is in our communities is our lives,” said Ratt, who has been battling blazes for over two weeks. “We are not going anywhere we are going to stand here and fight the best way we know how.”
Douglas Ratt said Sucker River has about 32 people on its fire crew and they are starting to fatigue.
“We need those guys to get a couple of days off because they are getting stressed out,” he said. “It’s what, 16 days now, 17 days now, fighting the fire. All day, all night. I’d be nice to have some back-up for them to go rest. Once these guys start getting tired that is when accidents happened…they’ve been pushing themselves to the limit”
Cook-Searson has been calling on the province to hire more First Nations firefighters to bolster the ranks.
“They know the water, the lakes, the land, they know how to navigate through rapids and rivers, they know the boreal forests and they fought fires before, plus this is part of who we are, is the land,” she said.
In the meantime, the communities, with the backing of the Prince Albert Grand Council, are taking matters into their own hands training their own firefighters that are now entering the field at a steady rate.
While the weather forecast for the area is predicting long-hoped for rain this week, crews on the ground from places like Sucker River and Stanley Mission are prepared for a long, drawn-out battle.
“For us just to watch a community burn is not our way,” said Henry Ratt. “God is with us.”