Thunder Bay

Deer Lake First Nation fully evacuating due to forest fire threat in northern Ontario

A northwestern Ontario First Nation community is requesting a full evacuation due to forest fire activity.

Red Lake 51 burning 26 km west of the community, 3 other communities partially evacuated

The northwestern Ontario community of Deer Lake First Nation is expected to request support for a full evacuation Friday due to nearby forest fire activity. (Submitted by Chris Marchand)

A northwestern Ontario First Nation community is fully evacuating due to threats of forest fires in the region.

Red Lake 51 is burning about 26 kilometres west of Deer Lake First Nation. The fire was listed as being observed, and more than 45,700 hectares in size, as of Friday morning.

The Ministry of the Solicitor General confirmed Friday the First Nation would be evacuating at request of the community leadership. 

Deer Lake has already been partially evacuated, with vulnerable residents being hosted in other communities in Ontario, including Thunder Bay, Cochrane and Cornwall.

As of Friday morning, about 250 people remained in the fly-in community. 

David Meekis, a band councillor with Deer Lake, said the community received an update from the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry, and the forecast was "not too favourable" for Deer Lake in terms of smoke and the possibility of the fire getting closer.

Out of the dozens of forest fires burning in northwestern Ontario, four of note are concerning fire suppression officers and surrounding communities. In the last four days, Deer Lake First Nation, Poplar Hill First Nation and Pikangikum First Nation have begun partial evacuations. Red Lake municipality has warned residents to be prepared to leave, while some have already fled. (CBC News)

Meekis said a formal request for evacuation support was issued Friday afternoon.

"There's a lot of logistics that need to be worked out, a lot of planning.

"We have to find out where there are accommodations available," he said. "There's a lot of moving parts."

Some Deer Lake residents, however, have indicated they don't want to leave, Meekis said Friday morning.

"We have a list of people that have signed waivers saying they understand the risk of not leaving, and they understand they're putting their health at risk by not leaving," he said. "We're hoping that community members will eventually change their mind and leave the community for their own safety."

Some residents hesitant to leave

Meekis said residents have expressed a number of reasons for not wanting to leave, including anxiety over flying, and a desire to stay and protect their homes.

Meekis said nurses are expected to be flown out of the community Friday, adding that logistics of on-reserve emergency response was still being sorted out as of Friday morning. 

"All the nurses will likely leave. I can't say what's going to happen if we have an emergency after that, I imagine something will be in place." 

A spokesperson for Indigenous Service Canada said Friday that during emergency events, essential health services in the community may be affected due to loss of infrastructure, evacuation of health-care providers or decreased access to health services.

When it comes to police services in First Nations, a spokesperson for Nishnawbe Aski Police said officers will be the last to leave the community in evacuation scenarios, and most will stay to look after homes and pets.

3 other communities partially evacuated

Elsewhere in the region, three other communities, including two First Nations have begun evacuations. 

Poplar Hill First Nation and Pikangikum First Nation began evacuating vulnerable populations earlier this week to host communities across the province, before beginning community-wide evacuations as of Wednesday.

According to the Ministry of the Solicitor General, over 1,400 members from Poplar Hill First and Pikangikum First Nations have left for safety as of Thursday night.

The municipality of Red Lake has yet to issue an evacuation order. However, the local hospital and long-term care home have evacuated patients and residents with more complex health concerns else where in the region.

Red Lake Mayor Fred Mota told CBC News on Wednesday that many community members have already left the township on their own accord. 

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