Wildfire evacuees wait to find out when they can return home

By Thia James
July 1, 2015 - 2:12pm

Tracey Halkett and her sons are among the more than 1,200 people seeking shelter in Prince Albert from thick smoke from fires inundating their northern communities.

The Sucker River family has been in the city since Saturday. The Eli fire, which was 23 square kilometres (km) as of Tuesday, was burning an area nearly the size of Yorkton. It is close to the Halkett family’s home community, as well as Wadin Bay.

The smoke was too thick for Halkett’s eight-month-old son. They, along with her seven-year-old son had been staying at the family cabin in Besnard Lake.

“And then the smoke ended up following us here to P.A. anyways,” she said. Along with the thick smoke and fires around the lake, her parents’ cabin was consumed by the fire.

“They’re OK. As long as the people are safe, they’re OK,” Halkett said. “Because it’s just material stuff.”

Halkett and her children are among the many staying at the Quality Inn hotel in Prince Albert’s downtown area. Other Prince Albert hotels, such as the Prince Albert Inn, have taken in people evacuated from communities near the wildfires.

Evacuation sites in Prince Albert are at capacity, the ministry of social services announced on Wednesday. Prince Albert has no capacity “whatsoever” to take on any additional people, said Kerri Kempf, manager of information and emergency services for social services. “Regina is our destination.”

The province is asking residents in communities taking in evacuees to be courteous and welcoming to those who have endured a lot beyond the evacuation, but also the long trips out of their home communities.

Halkett has found the experience of being evacuated stressful, especially with an eight-month-old separated from his father.

Her husband remains at work at the Besnard Lake Lodge, which is still open to visitors. Her husband, she said, had open heart surgery five years ago.

“He should be here,” she added, as her son cooed in the background.

Unable to take her children outside due to the thick smoke filling Prince Albert’s air on Tuesday, she brought them to the hotel’s lobby for a while.

Also sitting in the hotel’s lobby was Tina Ratt, 69, who is actually staying at the Super 8 motel on the south end of the city. She was evacuated from the La Ronge area because of the smoke’s effects on her health. After the fires started, warnings went out about evacuations.

And then her family got a call about evacuations taking place. Her son helped to get her on a bus out of La Ronge.

“I wanted to stay, but my kids won’t let me,” she said. She has many photos still at her home, but she had no time to take them with her.

Ratt is concerned about the fires near her community – her grandchildren are still there.

“I don’t know whether they’re going to come in or not, I have no idea,” she said.

It’s not only hotels and motels taking in evacuees. The Red Cross has an evacuation centre set up at Saskatchewan Polytechnic’s Woodland Campus and Carlton Comprehensive High School. Between the two sites, there is room for 500 people to stay.

The evacuation centres have been reaching capacity while fires creeping closer to populated areas and the resulting smoke forced a few communities, such as Sucker River, Grandmother’s Bay and Wadin Bay to call general evacuations.

Ryan Vetri heard the warnings about the coming general evacuation in Sucker River on Thursday night and had his bags packed. On Friday, when the alerts went out, he drove to Prince Albert, a near three-hour trip by car.

The roads were still open, but visibility was poor. A number of roads were closed due to the smoke and wildfires burning nearby, but a few, including Highway 2 south of La Ronge re-opened. By Wednesday morning, Highway 102 north of La Ronge had reopened as well.

When Vetri’s community was evacuated, the Eli fire was burning 10 km away. The fire later burned as close as four km away.

He’s not concerned so much about his property being damaged, but the irreplaceable items, such as pictures. He wasn’t able to bring those items with him.

“We didn’t really plan for that. We just packed our cats and a couple changes of clothes and stuff like that,” he said.

He’s staying at the Quality Inn hotel ever since he arrived in the City.

“I’m thankful for the help we’ve been getting, but I kind of want to go home.”

-With files from Alex Soloducha.

[email protected]

On Twitter: @thiajames

UPDATED: Police locate missing boy

Join the Discussion

paNOW is happy to provide a forum for commenting and discussion. Please respect and abide by the house rules: Keep it clean, keep it civil, keep it truthful, stay on topic, be responsible, share your knowledge, and please suggest removal of comments that violate these standards. See full commenting rules.