LA RONGE, Saskatchewan (AP) — Canadian soldiers arrived Tuesday to help battle raging wildfires in the western province of Saskatchewan, where more than 10,000 people have been evacuated in recent days. The smoke has triggered air quality warnings across the U.S. West and Midwest.
Premier Brad Wall said it is the biggest evacuation effort in Saskatchewan's history.
Karen Hill, a spokeswoman for Saskatchewan's provincial emergency services, estimated about 10,000 to 12,000 people have been forced to leave their homes in recent days, but cautioned that authorities were not able to track all the evacuees. The evacuations mostly from more than 50 communities in the northern part of the province.
Special air quality statements remained in effect for much of Saskatchewan, as well as northern Manitoba and Alberta and southern British Columbia, where heavy smoke was visible over Canada's Pacific coast.
Smoke from the wildfires has also led to air quality advisories in states across the U.S. Midwest and West, including Washington state, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Colorado and Wisconsin.
About 1,000 military personnel were arriving in Saskatchewan from Manitoba and Alberta, said Colin King, deputy commissioner of operations with Saskatchewan's emergency management department.
King called the fire situation "critical," adding that the thousands of evacuees won't be returning home soon. About a dozen homes, remote cabins and other structures have been destroyed. More than 110 fires are burning in Saskatchewan alone.
"It's not often the Canadian Army is called upon by the provinces to assist with forest fires but this is a big one for Saskatchewan," said Defense Minister Jason Kenney.
More than 1,500 square miles (4,000 square kilometers) have burned in high-priority fire zones — more than 10 times the annual average for the province.
Duane McKay, Commissioner of Emergency Management, described fire conditions in the province as "fairly dire."
Emergency officials in Saskatchewan said a large wildfire threatening one of the biggest communities in the north was stable Tuesday, but they feared a shift in wind could change the situation. The blaze had come within one mile (1.5 kilometers) of La Ronge, a town of 2,700 people.
A special Skycrane helicopter, the largest firefighting chopper in North America, had also arrived from Montana to aid a fleet of water bombers and bulldozers.
About 680 evacuees from northern Saskatchewan were being housed at a recreation center in Cold Lake, Alberta. Some complained that they lacked basic amenities.
Sisters Jennifer and Mable Isbister, who had no time to pack their things after fleeing their home in La Ronge, said the past two days haven't been easy for them or their families. They said some evacuees didn't get blankets and there was not enough food to go around.
"It's going to be a continuing process," said Jennifer Isbister. "Some of us didn't even have supper last night or breakfast this morning."
J.P. Taschereau, senior manager of emergency response with the Red Cross, said he was not aware of a food shortage in Cold Lake, but said volunteers were working to replace vital items left behind by evacuees and meet their needs.
Over 1,000 firefighters were also battling more than 180 blazes across British Columbia, which have triggered eight evacuation orders and alerts, said fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek.
Smoke from two wildfires near Whistler, British Columbia, was contributing to poor air quality in the town renowned for its outdoor activities.
British Columbia's Ministry of Forests has called in firefighters from Ontario and Australia to help battle fires in the province.
"Western Canada is incredibly active right now and we've certainly got a pretty dynamic situation here but it pales in comparison to what's going on in Saskatchewan in terms of their evacuations," said Skrepnek.
While the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said Tuesday that about 200 people forced from their homes by wildfires in a remote northern Alberta community can go home, Alberta officials said there are still 93 wildfires burning in the province Tuesday, including 37 listed as out of control.
Forests Minister Steve Thomson said firefighters from New Zealand will likely head to Alberta.
This story has been corrected to delete an incorrect reference to 9,000 people being forced from their homes in more than 50 communities in British Columbia. The 9,000 evacuees were in Saskatchewan.