wildfire at La Ronge airport
© Prince Albert Fire Department/TwitterThis was the situation at the La Ronge airport on the weekend.

Biggest ever exodus of its kind in Saskatchewan, Red Cross says

In what's being dubbed the biggest evacuation effort in Saskatchewan's history, Premier Brad Wall said the number of evacuees affected by raging wildfires in the province's northern regions is "unprecedented."

"This particular fire event is different for our province just because of the amount of hectares that are currently burning, which is, by the way, about 10 times the average year," Wall told reporters mid-afternoon on Monday.

Wall noted that the number of affected communities also "make this [situation] particularly unique and dangerous."

More than 13,000 people have been forced from their homes due to northern Saskatchewan blazes, according to Red Cross.

There were 112 fires burning in the province Monday, the Saskatchewan Environment Ministry said.

The escalating situation forced the Saskatchewan government to bring in a Sikorsky S-64 skycrane helicopter from Montana.

helicoptor over Saskatchewan wildfire
© Ross Andreson/The Associated PressThe Saskatchewan government has brought in a Sikorsky Skycrane helicopter, similar to this one, from Montana to help fight encroaching wildfires in northern Saskatchewan.

According to Wall, it has the capacity of a waterbomber with the agility of a helicopter.

Provincial government officials said it can drop 1,000 gallons of flame-suppressant material and be more accurate than airplane tankers.

Along with the chopper, an immediate response team of 500 members from Canada's Armed Forces are expected to arrive in the La Ronge area by 5 p.m. CST to help battle the blazes.

The Department of National Defence said 900 more troops will be available if needed. They'll be receiving training from Saskatchewan's Wildfire Management Department.

Brig.-Gen. Wayne Eyre said the troops will work mostly around the La Ronge area, patrolling and putting out hot spots.

"The last time we've done a forest fire to this extent was 2003 in B.C.," said Eyre, who's commander of Joint Task Force West and the 3rd Canadian Division.

Eyre said troops will be moving around in light armoured vehicles for offroad mobility.

All current troops involved are regular military members, but reservists will be called in for standby, Eyre said.

Weekend fires close in

On the weekend, as forest fires crept closer to inhabited areas, a general evacuation for the La Ronge area was ordered.

That affects close to 8,000 people and is in addition to the more than 5,000 who were taken to emergency shelters in Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert and other centres earlier last week.

"This is absolutely the biggest evacuation we've experienced in Saskatchewan," Red Cross spokeswoman Cindy Fuchs told reporters on Sunday.

More than 600 firefighters were battling fires last week, and it was announced on the weekend that 1,000 more from the Canadian Forces would be put to work in the La Ronge area.

Hot weather, dry conditions and lightning strikes have combined to create the worst time for forest fires in many years.

"I've never seen anything like this," said Tammy Cook-Searson, chief of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band. "We've had to evacuate all six of our communities."

Resources stretched

Only emergency services remain in the town and area, about 380 kilometres north of Saskatoon, she said in an interview with CBC News on Monday.

Fire was approaching La Ronge from two sides on the weekend. Five fire departments are in the town, but resources are stretched to the limit.

"They are trying their best," Cook-Searson said. "There are so many wildfires right now."

On Monday, the provincial government said more than 7,000 evacuees have registered with the provincial government, with many of them living in emergency shelters. Many more haven't registered but left their communities and are staying with family and friends.

About a dozen structures, including homes, have burned. No one has been seriously injured.

Fire officials said they've seen slightly improved weather conditions over the past day around La Ronge, with winds shifting in a favourable direction.