The battle for La Ronge: Soldiers join desperate fight to save endangered community from fire

July 9, 2015

By: National Post

The fire has jumped highways, streams and even a bulldozed no-man’s-land slashed through the woods by firefighters. By Tuesday night, it surrounded the La Ronge airport on three sides.

“Oh man, the fire jumped so fast and so quick,” read an online update by Jack Charles, one of the emergency personnel on the scene.

As thousands of La Ronge evacuees across the central Prairies watch with anxious anticipation, the battle to save their town is reaching its final climax.

Walls of orange flame had been seen lapping at the chain link fences along the airport’s borders. Just to the north, ski trails and campgrounds have gone up in smoke. And the flames need only to advance a two minute drive to the south before they would start tearing through subdivisions.

As La Ronge gets caught in the eye of one of the worst fires in Saskatchewan history, exhausted firefighters, overworked pilots and a last-deployment of the Canadian Army are all that separates this remote community from becoming the next Slave Lake.

“Houses stand but still in a full swing battle out there,” wrote a firefighter from La Ronge in an update to friends and family.

Cheers and honks greeted Canadian soldiers as they streamed into Prince Albert, SK in a long convoy of olive green pickup trucks, G wagons and armoured personnel carriers.

Like virtually every Saskatchewan city this week, Prince Albert is packed with evacuees from the north, many of whom were more than happy to turn out to greet the 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group as liberators.

“Help is on the way!” declared a Facebook post of the vehicles kicking up dust as they pulled into Prince Albert.

More than 500 soldiers, all of them from the Edmonton Garrison, had been called into service as muscle for the gruelling task of fighting fires with picks and shovels.

“Our soldiers, by virtue of their preparation for general war-fighting, are very well prepared for this,” Brigadier-General Wayne Eyre, commander of Joint Task Force West, assured reporters on Tuesday.

“Thank you, my general, have a good fight,” said one of the Francophone reporters.

The ranks are filled with Saskatchewanians — including Eyre — all of whom were reportedly “excited” at being able perform that rare task for a Canadian soldier: Fighting off a hostile force on home soil.

“They sometimes refer to it as the ‘home game’ … the soldiers are incredibly excited to be out here,” said Major Reginald McMichael, a company commander with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.

While Northern Saskatchewan is currently bearing the brunt of the 2015 fire season, it is just the beginning of a wave of wildfires that have already swept much of Western Canada.

Vancouver, Victoria and communities throughout B.C. and the prairies remained shrouded in smoke Tuesday as fires tore through millions of hectares of forests.

La Ronge and surrounding communities, including the First Nations community of the Lac La Ronge Indian band — have been turned into ghost towns after being subject to a mandatory evacuation order over the weekend.

As the presence of RCMP indicated, the sudden movement of thousands of residents was not always easy.

Lines backed up for hours at the La Ronge gas station and residents — some of whom have never left Saskatchewan — resisted being forced to abandon their pets or demanded that they be left behind to mount their own last stand against the fire.

The fear, of course, is that La Ronge could become the next Slave Lake. It was only four years ago that high winds pushed flames deep into the centre of the Alberta town, roaring over firebreaks with ease. Within hours, more than one third of the community was gone.

While no houses had fallen as of Tuesday night, officials were quick to warn that the slightest change could bring a sudden Armageddon to La Ronge.

“The situation is dangerous, and wildfire situations can change dramatically in a very short time,” read an alert from emergency coordinator Scott Boyes.

On Tuesday, just as the first soldiers became to filter in, the town was still eerily empty, with its smoky streets occupied only by emergency vehicles: Water trucks dousing the surrounding brushland and grime-covered firefighters coming from in the front lines.

Evacuees keeping tabs on the situation from afar cheered the “eye candy” of young men coming in to defend their home. A cheeky post from one of the town’s many exhausted fire crew members showed him urinating into a patch of smouldering grass near his fire break. “Make every drop count I say,” he wrote.

Off the town’s western flank, counter-fires and a “cat line” of cleared forest was holding the fire at bay, although crews had to keep a close guard of the perimeter to stop the blaze from jumping the gap.

“Crews continue to work hard to hold the fire line from the air and ground,” read La Ronge Mayor Thomas Sierzycki’s daily fire update.

Within La Ronge, meanwhile, fleets of municipal firetrucks cruised the streets looking for spot fires that may have drifted in on floating embers.

The trucks — which have all been scrambled to La Ronge in the past few days — come from a who’s who of small town Saskatchewan fire departments: Warman, Osler, Outlook and Carrot River. “The Saskatchewan way; you help your neighbours,” declared Warman Fire Rescue as one of its crews drove three hours under smoky, blood-red skies to La Ronge.

By: National Post

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