Thunder Bay

Poplar Hill, Deer Lake forest fire evacuees from northwestern Ontario to start heading home this week

Evacuees from two northwestern Ontario First Nations who have been staying in Thunder Bay for nearly a month are expected to return home in the coming days.

Residents of both communities forced from their homes nearly a month ago

More than 115 forest fires were burning in northwestern Ontario as of Monday morning. (Ontario Forest Fires/Twitter)

Evacuees from two northwestern Ontario First Nations who have been staying in Thunder Bay for nearly a month are expected to start returning home in the coming days.

About 385 Poplar Hill residents and more than 400 from Deer Lake have been staying in Thunder Bay.

Eric Nordlund, Thunder Bay's deputy fire chief, said Monday that Poplar Hill community members could start returning home as early as Tuesday, while flights to Deer Lake could start on Thursday.

"That's the current plans," Nordlund said, adding the exact timeline depends on "logistics of finding and scheduling aircraft and the flights."

Jonathan Scott, fire information officer with Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services (AFFES), said the fires that caused the evacuations of Deer Lake and Poplar Hill have slowed due to suppression efforts and recent rainfall:

  • Red Lake 65, burning about six kilometres west of Poplar Hill, is now about 19,700 hectares, and smouldering with some visible smoke.
  • Red Lake 51, at about 52,000 hectares and located about 24 kilometres west of Deer Lake, is also smouldering with some visible smoke.

The scheduling of flights for the two communities returning home will be handled by the province, Nordlund said.

The provincial Ministry of the Solicitor General confirmed it's ancitipated evacuees from Deer Lake and Poplar Hill will be returning home this week, but no further details were provided.

Nordlund said the 2021 fire season has been a busy one.

"We saw, certainly, more folks come out all at once," he said. "It stretched our capacity a bit."

"But in doing so, it also forced our hand to say, 'OK, how can we be better at this, and how can we ... more properly respond to the requests of our fellow community members in northwest Ontario, to help them out in a time of need, and work with the province and the federal government to meet those needs?'"

"And that means building capacity within our own organization."

Restricted fire zone in effect

As of Monday morning, 116 forest fires were burning in northwestern Ontario.

A restricted fire zone remains in effect in the Kenora, Fort Frances, Dryden and Thunder Bay districts, and portions of the Sioux Lookout, Red Lake and Nipigon districts. Outdoor burning is prohibited in those areas.

Scott said recent rainfall has reduced behaviour on fires in the region, but hasn't had a "huge impact" on the overall severity of current conditions.

"They are calling for more rain," Scott said. "That may give us a few days of reduced fire behaviour and reduce the fire hazard.

"But over the next few days, they are saying that there may be a drying trend."

Concerns about drying trend

Scott said the drying trend may drive the fire hazard back up.

Forest fire activity in the region has also led to the partial evacuations of Pikangikum, Wabaseemoong, North Spirit Lake and Cat Lake.

Some residents of Pikangikum are being hosted in Thunder Bay by the Independent First Nations Alliance, but the province said Tuesday the evacuees are in the process of returning home.

The province also said evacuees from Cat Lake had returned home as of Sunday.

The province has also issued an emergency order for northwestern Ontario that allows it to take special measures "to ensure the safety of people and the protection of critical property."

The restrictions apply to certain industrial operations that have the potential to cause sparks and start fires. A complete list of affected operations is available on Ontario's forest fire information page.