Ottawa

Hundreds from Deer Lake flee to Cornwall to escape forest fires

As multiple fires rage in northwestern Ontario, hundreds from a First Nation community have been relocated to a hotel on the opposite side of the province.

Residents told they could only bring about 13 kilograms worth of luggage

Evacuees from Deer Lake First Nation board a plane as nearby forest fires threaten to reach the community. (Submitted by resident of Deer Lake)

As multiple fires rage in northwestern Ontario, hundreds from a First Nation community — many of them children — have been relocated to a hotel on the opposite side of the province.

More than 500 people from Deer Lake First Nation were flown 2,000 kilometres east to the Nav Centre in Cornwall, Ont., where they'll likely stay for at least a month.

A formal request for evacuation support was issued in Deer Lake Friday afternoon as nearby fires continue to grow. As of Monday, more than 100 fires were burning in the region, including three fires around the communities of Red Lake and Kenora, Ont., that ranged from 20,000 to 100,000 hectares in size. The wildfires have been large enough to cause air quality problems as far away as eastern Ontario and western Quebec.

The community of Deer Lake had already been partially evacuated earlier last week, with vulnerable residents being hosted in areas like Cornwall, Thunder Bay and Cochrane. Some were flown out as recently as Sunday.

While residents had several days' notice, they were told they could only bring a single suitcase with a limit of about 13 kilograms each. Many were only able to pack their clothes and IDs. Some chose to stay behind to take care of pets. 

Deer Lake resident Kerri Rae flew to Cornwall with her nine-year-old son. (Hugo Belanger/CBC)

Residents like Kerri Rae and her son left everything behind.

"I'm feeling kind of homesick. Like, I miss being at home," Rae said. "But I did what I could for [my son] ... I just got on the first plane I could with him."

Residents are worried about their houses, said Linus Meekis. "We don't want to stay here forever. We want to go home."

'We're all worried,' says resident Linus Meekis of the homes left behind in Deer Lake. (Hugo Belanger/CBC)

At the hotel, several families are sharing rooms with single beds. Many that have relocated to the city have young children and everyone has been told they won't be able to return home for at least a month while crews deal with the fire near the Deer Lake community.

"I talked to [my son] and he understood why we had to leave," said Rae. "I told him, 'You'll be okay out there. People are going to take care of us out there.'"

More residents to arrive

During a media briefing Monday, the Eastern Ontario Health Unit's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Paul Roumeliotis told reporters it's possible a few more residents from Deer Lake will be arriving in Cornwall soon.

"This is not new to us," said Roumeliotis of taking in residents. Last year, 129 Canadian cruise ship passengers were flown to Cornwall from Japan to quarantine for two weeks after a COVID-19 outbreak.

Deer Lake residents have been relying on taxis and public transportation to get to and from the Nav Centre. (Hugo Belanger/CBC)

"We're not sure how long they'll be here but we have been providing the usual care and support through our multiple health-care [and] social providers," Roumeliotis told reporters.

Meanwhile, Deer Lake residents said they are organizing recreational activities to help pass the time. While many are homesick, some like Meekis said people remain hopeful there will be a home to return to.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicole Williams

Video Journalist

Nicole Williams is a video journalist with CBC Ottawa. She previously worked as a reporter with CBC P.E.I. and as an associate producer with CBC News in Toronto.

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