Thunder Bay

More military aircraft arrive to help evacuate Ontario First Nation as forest fire rages

The Royal Canadian Airforce brought in an additional Hercules aircraft and two CH-147 Chinook helicopters Friday to assist in the evacuation of Pikangikum in northwestern Ontario. Fire crews are focusing on the western flank of a 3,000-hectare blaze that has caused a state of emergency in the First Nation, fire officials say.

1additional Hercules aircraft, 2 CH-147 Chinook helicopters help in Pikangikum evacuation

A Hercules aircraft touches down in Pikangikum First Nation to help with evacuations. The community declared a state of emergency on Wednesday because of a nearby forest fire. (Amanda Sainnawap / Twitter)

The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) has dispatched a third Hercules aircraft and two CH-147 Chinook helicopters to help in the evacuation of PIkangikum First Nation, after the northwestern Ontario community declared a state of emergency due to a 3,000 hectare forest fire burning nearby. 

Red Lake 14 remained classified as not under control Friday morning. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) said the fire was still near the First Nation's eastern boundary and about two kilometres from its airport.  

Hercules plane being loaded by military 1:43

Crews in northern Ontario are focusing on the western edge of the fire to prevent it from advancing toward the community, MNRF officials said, explaining that a pair of CL-415 air tankers and up to a dozen fire ranger crews had been dispatched to the western flank. 

The Ontario government requested help from the military late Wednesday night to help get people out of  the community, said RCAF public affairs officer David Lavallee.  

Two Hercules aircraft were dispatched Thursday, he said, taking approximately 226 people to Sioux Lookout, about 240 southeast of the First Nation.

The third Hercules arrived from 8 Wing at CFB Trenton, while the helicopters are from CFB Petawawa, Lavallee said. 

Students in Pikangikum First Nation line up as a Hercules aircraft prepares to board evacuees from the community. (supplied)

Commercial airlines helping evacuation

"Noting the seriousness of the situation, we have those assets participating so that if we do need to move a large number of people, they can help move a significant portion of them out of harm's way," Lavallee said, adding that the RCAF does not yet know how many it will be asked to fly out.

Commercial air carriers are also participating in the evacuation.

North Star Air deployed a Dash 8 aircraft Thursday to help carry evacuees from Sioux Lookout to Cochrane and other northern Ontario host communities, where people will live until the fire is no longer a threat. 

"We have pulled out all the stops," said Karen Matson, director of marketing and community relations for the airline. "All our staff in Sioux Lookout — even those with scheduled days off — have devoted their time to help with the dire situation .... It's bedlam." 

North Star is also using is Basler cargo plane to help carry supplies for fire crews, she said.

Red Lake 14 was about 3,000 hectares in size Friday morning and still burning about two kilometres away from Pikangikum. (Trav G Peters/Facebook)

No damage to power line so far

The chief executive officer of Wataynikaneyap Power told CBC that, as of Thursday night, there had been no damage to the new power line connecting Pikangikum to the provincial power grid.

"As I understand it, the firefighters are on it, and also, wherever the fire crossed, there was no damage to the line," Margaret Kenequanash said.    

The fire hazard in the Red Lake district, which includes Pikangikum, was high on Friday.

About 3,800 people live in Pikangikum, which is about 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay.

Sioux Lookout issues emergency declaration

Local officials say the community has over 1,200 people who need to be evacuated quickly, including the elderly, pregnant women, children and people who are sick.

The Canadian Rangers in Pikangikum were also credited with their work on the ground by community leaders and the military for their part in helping with the evacuations.

Sioux Lookout declared a state of emergency Thursday evening to help it prepare for its role, firstly as a hub, then, if necessary, as a host for evacuees.

In a written release, municipal officials said they expect to receive all evacuees from Friday through Saturday, with the community acting as a sort of staging ground, before people are flown to other northern Ontario communities where they will stay for the duration of the evacuation.

The community said it would also act as a host if required.

The province has said that, aside from Thunder Bay and Sioux Lookout, other host communities could include:

  • Dryden.
  • Cochrane.
  • Kapuskasing.
  • Timmins.
  • Hearst.
Pikangikum First Nation and Armed Forces officials credit Canadian Rangers in the community as being instrumental in evacuation efforts. (Pikangikum First Nation/Facebook)