Mallard Fire

Mar 15, 2012

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It has been 12 years, and the land in the small Saskatchewan town of La Ronge is still scarred. Beyond the few residential and industrial buildings on the west side of Poirier Street is a sapling-dotted field between two large expanses of boreal forest. Fire Chief Ron Pratt points to seven 80,000-litre fuel tanks on sitting on the east side of the street that survived the 1999 Mallard fire. "If one had exploded, it would have jeopardized the integrity of the others and the community would be gone," he says, referring to the residential neighbourhood that lies less than one kilometre from the fuel storage centre.

Along the same street, Pratt points out two houses that were encircled by flames at one point. Despite the evacuation notice, their owners had stayed behind to water them and keep the fire at bay. Brave or foolish is arguable, but their aims mirrored Pratt's own: to protect La Ronge's buildings and infrastructure.

Over half of Saskatchewan is covered by boreal forest and lakes, and in the midst of it, about 300 kilometres north of Saskatoon, is La Ronge, the most populous settled area in the province's Northern Administration District. Its roughly 6,000 residents are from the communities of La Ronge proper and Air Ronge, as well as five Indian reserves administered by the Lac La Ronge Indian Band.

On 26 May 1999, a lightning storm generated two strikes that met and touched ground together about 2.5 kilometres west of town, creating a smoulder. The next day, the fire surfaced, and within less than two hours, the flames had reached the northern edge of La Ronge.

More than 230 firefighters, some coming from as far as the Prince Albert area, joined Pratt's 25-strong volunteer force. In addition, the Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management (SERM) northern base in La Ronge deployed its 14 water bombers to combat the blaze.

From the very beginning, Pratt regarded the wildfire as impossible to control. "We weren't prepared for a fire that size, that speed, and that close [to town]," he recalls. Dealing with such a vast disaster cannot be handled by one force; an event of this magnitude requires more manpower than one community can field. In order to put down such a fire, "the amount of resources a community would need is too vast," he notes, acknowledging the futility of battling a blaze of that size with a small team.

In these conditions, the plan was to limit damage as much as possible. Working during the day, the firefighters attempted to predict the fire's next move and hosed down anything that would be in its path. At times, the wall of flames was 90 feet high.

Larry Fremont is with the Ministry of Environment in Prince Albert. His first thought about the wildfire is shared by many who fought it. "It was a relatively easy fire for our team," says the SERM representative who acted as incident commander during the fire.

Still, he acknowledges that not everything ran as smoothly as it could have. At the top of his list are challenges inherent to working with volunteer firefighters. "It is very difficult to ensure volunteers are wearing the proper equipment and have the proper training," he says.

To raise awareness of the appropriate safety measures and dangers of fighting wildfire in settled areas, Saskatchewan's volunteer firefighters now graduate from the Fire Operations in the Wildland/Urban Interface course provided by the National Wildland Fire Training.

They are also introduced to the incident command system, defined by the United States Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance as "a set of personnel, policies, procedures, facilities, and equipment, integrated into a common organizational structure designed to improve emergency response operations of all types and complexes."

According to Fremont, one of the main benefits of being acquainted with this system is the usage of a common language during emergency situations. It introduces volunteer firefighters to complex command structures since they often have little or no experience in large emergency operations and may lack advanced training to respond at top efficiency, he says.

La Ronge's officials were taken by surprise when the fire broke out. As a result, they operated in state of "organized chaos", according to La Ronge's administrator Dave Zarazun, who was recreational director and a volunteer firefighter at the time.

Resource lists were not up to date, the town was lacking a contingency and evacuation plan, and the emergency coordinator that should have been on top of these had just been hired.

Zarazun says his deep involvement in the community allowed him to connect quickly with the necessary people, but credit for the smooth operation goes to La Ronge's residents for their resiliency and cohesion.

When 200 residents were ordered to evacuate, Zarazun opened up the town's recreation centre to the evacuees. While he was busy fighting the fire, community volunteers took care of logistics for the victims. "People around here really stepped up to the plate," he says.

The fire eventually burned down a narrow strip of the boreal forest, about eight kilometres long and two kilometres wide. Ten families lost their houses and some commercial buildings were also destroyed. Thankfully, there were no casualties.

As Fire Chief Pratt and his team of volunteer firefighters battled the fire, Mother Nature finally took care of it. Winds steadily pushed the flames toward Lac La Ronge. At close to 1,500 square kilometres and 40 metres deep, it was a natural barrier that the fire could not cross. La Ronge was safe.

Lessons Learned
Saskatchewan has since integrated some new technologies and systems into its firefighting resources. In 2002, the province acquired what it calls its "values protection unit." This is a modified manure drag hose deployed on the frontline. With a capacity of up to 1,500 gallons of water, this seven-kilometre-long hose is punctured with sprinklers every 30 metres and can be used within four hours of being dipped into a large water source such as a lake.

It is unwound by a farm tractor in the fire's likely path. The spraying water creates a wet break and, with the fire crew control-burning vegetation across from the wet wall, fire fuel capacity is reduced.

SERM used the unit to successfully protect the community of Deschambault Lake, Saskatchewan, from the 2009 Hopper fire, and during the same season, it was deployed twice to British Columbia to help with wildfire outbreaks.

A 2010 study by the University of Lethbridge in Alberta found that information La Ronge residents received from both officials and non-officials during the fire was sometimes inaccurate. Fremont agrees. "We were so busy working on the fire, we missed the general public."

SERM has developed a website that is now central to its communications' strategy and has made it easier to provide information to Saskatchewan residents. In addition to reports on current wildfires, the site also includes a section dedicated to wildfire education and prevention.

At times of extreme fire activity, when a fire nears a community or when a community is evacuated, SERM now activates a public call centre that provides residents with information about where to find missing relatives and the latest evacuation developments.

While it is impossible to prevent fires that start from lightning strikes, such as in La Ronge, Saskatchewan continues to monitor and take steps to improve its integrated fire response. In order to prevent some potential complications related to such emergencies, SERM officials now meet with community leaders in northern Saskatchewan each spring to discuss upcoming fire risks. Plans for new subdivisions are also assessed, with the aim of reducing the chances of a community being entrapped by a wildfire. 

Andre Fecteau is based in Ottawa.
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