Thunder Bay

Northern Ontario First Nation forest fire evacuees awaiting word it's safe to return home

The chief of Eabametoong First Nation says he’s waiting for word that the Nipigon 45 forest fire is under control before evacuees from the community head home.
A smoke column rises from a section of Nipigon 45 last week when intense fire behaviour was posing a challenge for firefighters. Scattered rains, high humidity and the continued efforts of crews have since lowered fire behaviour and smoke output from the 6,678 hectare fire west of Eabametoong First Nation, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. (Submitted by: MNRF)

The chief of Eabametoong First Nation, in northern Ontario, says he's waiting for word that the Nipigon 45 forest fire is under control before evacuees from the community head home.

Around 550 people from the community are currently being hosted in Thunder Bay, Timmins and Kapuskasing, Harvey Yesno said, while crews continue to battle the blaze.

Several others were already in Thunder Bay for medical appointments when the fire broke out and were prevented from returning home, he said.

"I think people are getting kind of anxious asking now, 'When are we going to return?'" he added.

Nipigon 45 is not a direct threat to the community's buildings or infrastructure, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry told CBC News. But smoke and ash blowing into the community has at times created air quality problems, prompting Yesno to evacuate vulnerable residents, such as elders, infants and their families, and those with medical conditions that make them susceptible to the effects of smoke.

The fire is burning approximately 35 kilometres west of Eabametoong on land that used to serve as the community's old commercial fishing camp prior to 1970, Yesno said. It currently houses some trappers' cabins, and those have been protected from damage by fire crews. 

Only 1 out-of-control fire in the region

As of Monday, the fire was the only one of 22 in the northwest region that was not under control, according to Chris Marchand, a fire information officer with the ministry's Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services.

The MNRF currently has 18 crews battling the fire, he said. Six helicopters are also dropping water on it. More crews are expected to arrive from Red Lake now that a fire threatening that community has been brought under control, he added.

Evacuees have been well cared for in their host communities, Yesno said.

The chief had expressed concern last week about the fact that the community's nurses could not travel with vulnerable residents. But, he said, that lack of continuity in their care has not been a serious problem.

"The services provided from the health units in each of the areas have been very good," he said. "And we've had a lot of other organizations helping with that. We've got our Matawa health unit, NAN [Nishnawbe Aski Nation], and many others, so that transition has really gone really well."

Once people return home, they will need to isolate for 14 days in accordance with the community's COVID-19 protocols, he said.

Despite a number of hardships that have befallen the community over the past year — such as the fire, the threat posed by COVID-19, and the loss of several cherished community members, including an elder who passed away around the same time as the fire broke out — the people are resilient, Yesno said.

with files from CBC Superior Morning