Thunder Bay·Video

First wave of evacuees leaves Pikangikum First Nation as forest fire grows

A Canadian military aircraft was dispatched Thursday to begin removing evacuees from Pikangikum First Nation in northern Ontario as a large wildfire burning near the community prompted a state of emergency.

Military aircraft are at the core of the northern Ontario evacuation

A large wildfire in northern Ontario is threatening Pikangikum First Nation. (Trav G Peters/Facebook)

Emergency management officials in Ontario say they expect three flights using Canadian military aircraft will be at the core of evacuation efforts in Pikangikum First Nation in northern Ontario on Thursday as a large wildfire burning near the community prompted a state of emergency.

The member of the Legislature for the area said local leaders have told him some residents have left on their own.

The provincial government has arranged with a number of cities across northern Ontario to host evacuees, including Thunder Bay. 

Officials in Pikangikum, a fly-in community located about 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, called for multiple planes Thursday morning to help people leave as a forest fire, known as Red lake 14, covered the First Nation in smoke and lit the sky red the night before.

Jenn Wallace, a teacher in the community who has been tweeting about the situation, posted an update Thursday evening saying children having trouble breathing because of smoke inhalation were seeking treatment at a nursing station.

"Even myself, a healthy adult is struggling to breathe when outside," she added.

The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry said Thursday afternoon that the fire had grown from 12 hectares to 400 hectares in about a 24-hour period; it was over 3,000 hectares by early Thursday evening. Sol Mamakwa, the New Democrat MPP for the riding that includes Pikangikum, tweeted Thursday afternoon that the flames were threatening some homes.

The fly-in community of Pikangikum First Nation is located approximately 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay. Chief Amanda Sainnawap has declared a state of emergency as a forest fire inched closer to the community. (CBC)

During question period at Queen's Park Thursday morning, Ontario Indigenous Services Minister Greg Rickford said provincial and federal emergency officials were mobilizing "fixed-wing aircraft from Ontario and Hercules from the Department of National Defence."

A spokesperson with the Ministry of the Solicitor General, which includes the province's emergency management program, said late Thursday afternoon he expects three flights using Hercules planes to bring evacuees to Thunder Bay. Another plane from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, a Dash 8, was to take evacuees to Cochrane.

Brent Ross said he anticipates more flights will arrive Friday.

A spokesperson with the Royal Canadian Air Force in Winnipeg confirmed that Ontario requested the military's help evacuating 250 people from Pikangikum to Thunder Bay on Thursday. David Lavallee said two Hercules aircraft were secured for the operation.

The first landed in Pikangikum late Thursday afternoon after taking off from CFB Trenton Thursday morning. The second left the eastern Ontario base Thursday afternoon. Evacuees were ushered onto the planes with the help of the Canadian Rangers, he said.

The first plane touched down in Thunder Bay around 7 p.m. Thursday. Some of the evacuees told CBC News they had waited all day for the flight out, adding they had barely slept the night before as the fire moved closer to their homes.

Mamakwa said he was told by Chief Amanda Sainnawap that the local airport was very busy throughout the day Thursday with a large number of small planes landing and taking off but with little apparent co-ordination.

A pair of Chinook helicopters from Petawawa were also deployed to Red Lake.

Chief frustrated by speed of response

Alvin Fiddler, the grand chief of the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation, a territorial organization that represents 49 First Nations in northern Ontario including Pikangikum, said he's frustrated by how long it took for the first plane to arrive in the community, considering Pikangikum declared a state of emergency Wednesday night.

Several MPs, including Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, have posted on social media about the situation, pledging support until the emergency is over.

Thunder Bay has agreed to host 300 evacuees and also serve as a transportation hub to assist with travel to other host communities across the province. Rickford said other host cities include Dryden, Sioux Lookout, Kapuskasing, Cochrane, Timmins and Hearst.

"We are prepared to provide any support we can to our northern neighbours in their time of need, and will be working hard to provide for the comfort of evacuees coming to Thunder Bay," Mayor Bill Mauro stated in a written release.

Ross said he couldn't confirm  how many people were flown out of Pikangikum on Thursday "due to the fluidity of the situation."

Pikangikum Fire Number 14 0:18

Nishnawbe-Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox said he had also been speaking with Sainnawap about the fire situation.

Fox said Sainnawap was concerned early Thursday morning about the amount of smoke in the area, which could prevent planes from getting in and out of the airport. He said smoke was also affecting the community's emergency exit route through Taxi Bay, where people can, via boat, access Nungesser Road, a rural route, south to Red Lake.

The fire made the skies over the Pikangikum First Nation glow red. (Priscilla King/Facebook)

Pikangikum is home to about 3,800 people. Mamakwa said over 1,000 are considered vulnerable and need to leave quickly.

Some people were able to leave Wednesday night, Fox said, and the community's most vulnerable residents were scheduled to be among the first flown out on Thursday.

A Hercules can carry 80 to 100 people at a time.

Clouds and 'chance of rain' tonight

According to Peter Kimbell, a meteorologist with Environment Canada, forecasters are expecting clouds to move into the Pikangikum area on Thursday with a chance of showers in evening and overnight hours.

"[There's] not a huge chance of showers and we don't expect any lightning," Kimbell told CBC News. "The winds ... are not expected to be very strong today."

Shortly before noon on Thursday, Environment Canada also issued a statement about air quality in the area.

"Individuals may experience symptoms such as increased coughing, throat irritation, headaches or shortness of breath. Children, seniors and those with cardiovascular or lung disease, such as asthma, are especially at risk," the agency said.

With files from The Canadian Press