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Saskatchewan First Nations Evacuate 13,000, Declare Wildfire State of Emergency

More than 13,000 people have been evacuated from La Ronge First Nation communities, and Montreal Lake Cree Nation has declared a wildfire emergency.

Wildfires have forced more than 13,000 Lac La Ronge band members and others from their homes in aboriginal communities in the largest evacuation Saskatchewan has ever seen. About 100 miles south, Montreal Lake Cree Nation has declared a state of emergency after flames engulfed the community on Friday July 3 in a blaze so fierce that even firefighters had to flee.

"Everybody's safe, but we just couldn't take on Mother Nature today," Chief Edward Henderson told CKOM radio news on July 4. Personnel returned the next day to continue putting out the flames. 

"There was no stopping it—four water bombers, two helicopters bucketing, crews on the ground doing whatever they could, but we just couldn't do anything when the wind picked up,” he said, describing the wall of flames that prompted the pullout of firefighters and volunteers when it came about a half mile from where they were toiling. “It was like having a fire pit right in front of you and all around you. We had fires on the east side, we had fires on the south, we had fires on the west side, we had fires on the north, so we booted it out of there."

In La Ronge, fire edged toward the town’s airport on Saturday, prompting precautionary evacuations of about 8,000 people, according to CBC News. Earlier in the week, 5,000 had been taken to shelters. As of Monday July 6, 112 fires were burning in the province, the Saskatchewan Environment Ministry told CBC News.

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

More than 1,500 firefighters are battling the blazes, CBC News said, including about 600 deployed last week, plus 1,000 more from the Canadian Forces that were en route as of July 6. Firefighters have come from as far away as Ontario, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and South Dakota, CKOM reported.

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

On Sunday night July 5, the fire had reached the La Ronge airport, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) reported.

Cook-Searson emphasized in a video on July 4 that the evacuations were being taken as a precaution so as to avoid injury if the fire got any closer. Some evacuees were staying with friends or family farther south in the province, while others were headed toward shelters.

Residents were urged via a note sent by provincial authorities to vacate with "a sense of purpose and urgency, but not panic,” according to CKOM radio news.

Montreal Lake Cree Nation saw at least two buildings burned to the ground, one of them a home. No one was injured, the band said in a statement quoted by CKOM.