Thunder Bay

'A race against time': First Nations, towns in northwestern Ontario prepare to evacuate as wildfires approach

As firefighting crews race to bring wildfires across northwestern Ontario under control, First Nations and towns are monitoring the weather forecast and making urgent plans for evacuations.

With many communities already evacuated, no rain in forecast rest of the week

Smoke from a number of forest fires across northwestern Ontario turned the skies a dark orange across the region, including in Pikangikum First Nation, with this photo taken Monday afternoon. (Submitted by Amanda Sainnawap)

First Nations and towns in northwestern Ontario are monitoring the weather forecast and making urgent plans for evacuations as firefighting crews race to bring wildfires across the region under control.

"Our community is in a race against time," said Pikangikum First Nation Chief Dean Owen in a written statement. "With so many communities being evacuated due to the fires, we are all competing for limited resources and space."

The First Nation, which is about 100 kilometres northwest of Red Lake, Ont., and has an on-reserve population of more than 3,000, declared a state of emergency on Monday night, and requested that about 500 to 800 "vulnerable people" be evacuated from Pikangikum. It marks the third time in three years community members have been forced to flee due to forest fire and smoke threats.

The former chief of Pikangikum, Amanda Sainnawap, was among the few who were able to leave the First Nation on Monday evening, by taking a half-hour boat ride to Taxi Bay on the mainland, which offers access to Nungessar Road, the only road leading south to Red Lake and the provincial highway network.

A community-wide evacuation has also been underway for several days in Poplar Hill, a fly-in First Nation near the Ontario-Manitoba border about 120 kilometres north of Red Lake, Ont., and there are ongoing evacuation efforts for the vulnerable population living in Deer Lake First Nation. Both have declared states of emergency and a number of other First Nations are on high alert.

Residents of Red Lake are also preparing to possibly evacuate as two fires in the region pose "a growing concern," according to a public update issued by Fred Mota, the municipality's mayor.

"There is a very real chance these fires will join together and gain strength and momentum. It is estimated that once combined, the fire may be well over 150,000 hectares in size."

With no rain predicted in the forecast through until at least Sunday, Mota added, the likelihood of evacuation "remains likely."

Health of vulnerable a priority

The smoke drifting over communities across the North is causing health and safety concerns, especially involving vulnerable people, including young children, the elderly and those with additional health conditions, said Mathew Hoppe of the Independent First Nations Alliance, a tribal council supporting Pikangikum's evacuation efforts.

He told CBC in an interview that Pikangikum has been providing air scrubbers to homes in the community to improve ventilation and air quality in homes.

In a Facebook Live on Tuesday night, the NDP MPP for Kiiwetinoong, Sol Mamakwa, spoke with David Gordon Meekis, a band councillor with Deer Lake First Nation.

Nurses have compiled a list of people most at risk of serious health complications, said Meekis, and the First Nation leadership has been co-ordinating to get those people and their families on planes and away from the smoke.

"I woke up [a couple days ago] thinking I was bothered by the smoke," he said. 

"The people that have asthma or elders that have issues breathing ... how do they feel? And most of them live in like older houses and they don't have that seal, so the smoke gets into the windows, through doors."

Communities, lodges set to host evacuees

A public affairs officer with the Canadian Armed Forces confirmed they're providing evacuation support, with people being directed to communities in the region, including Thunder Bay, Dryden, Kapuskasing, Cochrane and the NAV Canada Centre in Cornwall.

Sudbury, Timmins and even Ottawa are among communities preparing to provide additional support, according to statements from Ontario's Ministry of the Solicitor General and the Armed Forces.

Photos from First Nations and towns, including this one from Weagamow First Nation, have flooded social media, with the orange skies created by heavy smoke and forest fires. (Supplied by Lisamarie Winters)

The Facebook Group "Evacuees of Red Lake 2020/2021," created in August 2020 during the town's last forest fire-related evacuation, has been flooded with posts by individuals and lodges offering space, rooms and cabins for people fleeing the fires.

Scott Ellery, owner of Lac Seul Wilderness Resort, hosted evacuees last year and has offered to do it now.

"We're part of the community … so it only makes sense that we open our doors to those people that are in need," Ellery told CBC News in an interview.

Outside fire crews lend support

Firefighters from departments in nearby Kenora and Ear Falls were sent to Red Lake to assist crews in the area. Both had received help requests from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, especially to set up a sprinkler system and other fire prevention equipment.

Darryl Desjardins, the fire chief in Ear Falls, said they have already sent six members.

"It'll be constantly monitored. If they still need crews, [we] will just keep rotating our crews out."

As of late Tuesday evening, there were 79 active fires in northwestern Ontario: 18 new and 30 not under control, according to the province's Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services agency.

There are five forest fires "of note," including Kenora 51, which is not under control at 78,101 hectares, and has 21 crews and 13 helicopters assigned to it.

Restricted fire zones remain in effect throughout much of the region.


With files from Jasmine Kabatay, Olivia Levesque and Kris Ketonen