Thunder Bay

Nishnawbe Aski Nation wants Ontario to declare emergency as forest fires threaten Indigenous communities

A political organization representing 49 northern Ontario First Nations is calling on the province to declare a state of emergency to enable a full response to support communities, including some being evacuated, threatened by forest fires.

Declaration would allow province to fully support evacuations, political organization says

Amanda Sainnawap's photo shows the haze and glow from nearby forest fires as she left Pikangikum in northwestern Ontario on Monday afternoon. (Submitted by Amanda Sainnawap)

A political organization representing 49 northern Ontario First Nations is calling on the province to declare a state of emergency to enable a full response to support communities, including some being evacuated, threatened by dozens of forest fires.

"If fire conditions and behaviour continue on current course, the potential for full-scale evacuations of several communities is a reality," Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said in a news release issued Monday night. 

"This is quickly becoming a NAN-wide emergency and requires an immediate, co-ordinated response."

NAN said a provincial emergency declaration would allow full support for community evacuations, including the use of aircraft, watercraft and temporary accommodations in other communities.

Stephen Warner, spokesperson for the office of Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, said in a statement Tuesday that Jones has been in contact with Fiddler "to reiterate our commitment to take all required action to keep all Ontarians safe from these fires."

However, Warner said, a provincial declaration of emergency is not required to provide disaster response to communities.

"In Canada, emergency management in First Nation communities is the responsibility of the federal government," Warner said. "In Ontario, we have an agreement with the federal government to provide some preparedness and response activities in First Nation communities."

Evacuations of Deer Lake, Poplar Hill and Pikangikum First Nations in northwestern Ontario have been taking place in recent days, with members being hosted in other communities, including Thunder Bay.

Dozens of fires burning in region

The province's Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services (AFFES) agency said Poplar Hill is being fully evacuated due to Red Lake 65, which is burning about 16 kilometres southwest of the community. The fire is more than 4,000 hectares in size, and not under control.

Meanwhile, Red Lake 51 is burning about 27 kilometres west of Deer Lake, and is being observed. The fire covers more than 36,000 hectares.

Vulnerable residents of Deer Lake are being transported out of the community as a precaution, Warner said.

Fire crews have been setting up sprinklers in the area of both fires, AFFES fire information officer Jonathan Scott said Monday.

Brent Ross, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General (SOLGEN), also confirmed later Tuesday that the province is supporting a precautionary self-evacuation by vulnerable residents of Pikangikum First Nation. About 65 residents had left the community as of Monday night; updated numbers weren't available Tuesday.

Eric Nordlund, Thunder Bay deputy fire chief, said the city is currently hosting about 170 people from Deer Lake and about 355 from Poplar Hill after the final evacuees arrived Monday night.

Nordlund said Thunder Bay is at capacity in terms of hosting primary evacuees: that is, evacuees who will be staying in hotels, and are being provided essentials like medical supports and meals.

"We've got no more capacity to manage that, and that's what we're doing: we're managing this with the City of Thunder Bay staff, with our emergency management co-ordinator," and with Thunder Bay Fire Rescue, Thunder Bay police and Superior North EMS.

Evacuees are also being hosted in Kapuskasing, Cochrane, Dryden and Cornwall, Ross said.

Different process for immediate threat to life

Nordlund said if any communities require an emergency evacuation in the event a forest fire is causing an immediate threat to lives, Thunder Bay could host more evacuees in a larger location like an arena. But that's a different process and would require further government support, as well as involvement from the military.

"That's a question of looking after human life," Nordlund said. "Of course, we would do whatever we could to to support that."

No other northwestern Ontario First Nation communities had requested evacuations as of Tuesday afternoon, Ross said.

"The province will continue to collaborate closely with affected First Nation communities, participating municipalities, the federal government, and the NGO sector to ensure that all necessary resources are deployed to protect people impacted by wildfires," Ross said in a statement.

There were more than 70 fires burning in northwestern Ontario as of Tuesday morning, Scott said.

Fires of note include Kenora 51, which is not under control and covers more than 58,000 hectares. It is burning in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park.

Red Lake 68 and Red Lake 77 are both nearly 7,000 hectares and burning near Red Lake. The municipality posted a message on its Facebook page on Monday advising residents to be prepared for a possible evacuation.

Scott said rain is in the forecast for northwestern Ontario on Tuesday, which will help with fire suppression efforts.

Environment Canada said earlier this week that a cold front would be moving through the region on Monday night and Tuesday, bringing cooler temperatures.

However, any reprieve is expected to be brief, as temperatures are expected to return to heat-warning range by the end of the week, which will likely mark the beginning of a dry, hot spell in northwestern Ontario.