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Sask. premier says smoke hampering wildfire fighting efforts

Watch above: As over 5,000 residents are forced to evacuate, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall gets an up-close look at the wildfire situation in Northern Saskatchewan. Amber Rockliffe reports.

Heavy smoke is hampering the fighting of wildfires that are threatening some communities in northern Saskatchewan. Premier Brad Wall said smoke in the La Ronge area has grounded aircraft that have been battling the flames.

Wall met a group of firefighters and thanked them for their efforts.

“I don’t know if today there will be many helicopters or planes up so we are going to need you again and so have a very safe day, but have a successful day please, and thanks again for what you are doing for Saskatchewan,” he said.

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There were 107 wildfires burning in the province on Friday, with 800 people battling the blazes. In the past 24 hours, 14 fires were declared out while 12 new fires were reported.

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More than fifty helicopters have been brought in to help fight the fires.

Many people from northern communities are frustrated with what they call the ‘let it burn policy’, a supposed regulation that allows crews to leave a blaze alone as long as it’s 20 kilometres away from a community.

“Brad Wall has made the comment ‘let it burn’ a few years ago, and it stood. I’m from La Loche originally, and everyone has been complaining about it since it came into effect,” explained Baldwin Lamaigre.

The province said they have no such policy.

“Our policy that we do have is that we have zones, and all fires are assessed, and we look at the proximity to people and property,” explained Colin King, deputy commissioner of the province’s emergency management and fire safety branch.

King said there are some cases in which a wildfire will be left alone, if it poses no threat to the public or property.

“The fire may be allowed to run its natural course, which is actually healthy for the forest renewal, and there’s been fires for thousands of years,” he explained.

Many people from northern communities are frustrated with what they call the ‘let it burn policy’, a supposed regulation that allows crews to leave a blaze alone as long as it’s 20 kilometres away from a community.

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“Brad Wall has made the comment ‘let it burn’ a few years ago, and it stood. I’m from La Loche originally, and everyone has been complaining about it since it came into effect,” explained Baldwin Lamaigre.

The province said they have no such policy.

“Our policy that we do have is that we have zones, and all fires are assessed, and we look at the proximity to people and property,” explained Colin King, deputy commissioner of the province’s emergency management and fire safety branch.

King said there are some cases in which a wildfire will be left alone, if it poses no threat to the public or property,

“The fire may be allowed to run its natural course, which is actually healthy for the forest renewal, and there’s been fires for thousands of years,” he explained.

The province estimates the wildfires have forced more than 5,000 people from their homes. Fifty-one towns, villages and reserves have been evacuated or partially-evacuated as a precaution.

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Crews were managing to keep fires out of the communities, although flames did reach the edges of Montreal Lake and Weyakwin.

On Wednesday, a wildfire halted more than 80 evacuees from Pinehouse. Cameco put them up overnight at its Key Lake Mill, providing food and entertainment, before they were flown into Saskatoon Thursday.

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Smoke blanketing much of Saskatchewan prompted Environment Canada to issue special air quality statements for the province, as well as parts of Manitoba.

With files from The Canadian Press