July 12, 2015 - 7:00 AM
PRINCE ALBERT, Sask. - Officials were organizing a convoy Saturday to allow people to return to communities unaffected by Saskatchewan's wildfires, but there was no such luck for thousands of evacuees still biding their time in emergency shelters.
Several northeastern communities have not been threatened by the fires eating through extensive areas of the province's forests, but they were cut off when the highway north of La Ronge was closed due to the fire risk.
The highway was to be opened temporarily around suppertime so that emergency officials could escort between 100 and 150 people through the fire zone and back to their homes.
The road was not being opened to commercial vehicles or general traffic.
Highways spokesman Joel Cherry stressed that people set to return to the communities of Missinipe, Otter Rapids, Brabant, Southend and the Athabasca Basin have never been under an evacuation order.
"We're going to be very careful and we want to make very clear that we are only allowing permanent residents back to their communities," Cherry said. "We're not allowing people to return to communities where evacuation orders are still in effect.
"The police are going to be there as well and we are going to be checking IDs to be sure as possible that we're just letting permanent residents back."
The convoy was also providing a chance to haul much-needed supplies such as food and fuel to the communities trapped behind fire lines.
There was no such news for the 13,000 evacuees facing increasing boredom and frustration as they wait to return home.
"No new evacuees are going home," said Karri Kampf of emergency services. "Not today."
There was a bit of good news: one major fire within two kilometres of the village of Pinehouse, where 900 people usually live, had not come any closer.
There were more than 120 fires burning in the province, although the situation was stable, said Steve Roberts of the wildfire management branch.
"Even though some were active, they did not increase the community threats ... or add new communities under threat," Roberts said.
Weather conditions remain the biggest enemy for fire crews, he said. Saturday was expected to be hot, dry and windy. There was also a chance of lightning.
"We have this issue that rain gets forecast, but it is in such small and scattered amounts that the benefits we often get from some of those rain showers are (limited) ... or worse yet they come with lightning."
What is needed is something more drastic, he said.
"We are looking at the long range hoping for a shift that would bring an entirely new weather pattern into the province. It's kind of what we need to change the big picture for us."
Smoke was also expected to be an issue Saturday.
"Smoke loads in some communities will be extremely heavy to the point we will not be able to fly aircraft. It may actually ... affect road travel in some locations," Roberts said.
With not much change in the situation, fire-fighting reinforcements were still being added. The remaining third of several hundred soldiers were being trained to head into the flames and almost 70 reservists from Saskatchewan were expected to join them after training in Prince Albert.
As well, 23 fire specialists arrived from the United States to help manage crews, heavy equipment and aircraft.
News from © Canadian Press, 2015