Thunder Bay

Forest fire prompting Pikangikum First Nation evacuations grows

The Ontario government continued Tuesday to get people out of Pikangikum First Nation by aircraft as a forest fire burning a few kilometres from the northern community grows.

Fire has grown to nearly 4,000 hectares as of Monday night

Pikangikum First Nation members arrive in Winnipeg on Sunday. Pikangikum is being evacuated due to a growing forest fire near the community. (Submitted by Darryl Hepner)

The Ontario government continued Tuesday to get people out of Pikangikum First Nation by aircraft, as a forest fire burning a few kilometres from the northern community grows.

On Monday, several flights operated by private carriers flew Pikangikum residents out of the community, which is about 230 kilometres north of Kenora.

The Royal Canadian Air Force said two Hercules aircraft remained on standby, available to help in the evacuation efforts if needed.

A number of communities in northwestern Ontario are hosting residents of Pikangikum First Nation. (CBC)

Derek Fox, deputy grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation — a political organization that represents 49 First Nations, including Pikangikum — said between the RCAF and commercial carrier flights, more than 2,000 people have been taken out of the community over the past few days.

Pikangikum residents are being hosted in Winnipeg and Ontario communities, including Thunder Bay, Cochrane, Kapuskasing, Smooth Rock Falls, Timmins, Hearst, Sioux Lookout and Dryden.

Some are also in Red Lake, Ont., although that community hadn't been designated as an official host community as of Monday.

The exact number of evacuees, however, isn't known, Fox said, as some have left the community on their own and haven't been counted as part of the official evacuation efforts.

Some Pikangikum residents, Fox said, have left the community via Taxi Bay, which is a landing about 30 minutes by boat from the community. From there, residents can access a road that leads to Red Lake.

"You're just hoping everyone comes to register," he said. "There might be 50, 100, 200 people that have self-evacuated, who have gone to Red Lake, Dryden, Sioux Lookout, Thunder Bay."

"We don't know the exact numbers for that."

Still, the current official count puts the number of evacuees at more than half of Pikangikum's population, which is about 3,800 people. Fox said he hopes the remainder will be out of the community Tuesday.

"That's just a matter of just continuing the evacuations, which is a daunting task for everyone," he said. "I've been saying that for the last three or four days, just hoping that every day that all the members are out safely."

"Once again, we're hoping for that [Tuesday]."

In a news statement issued Tuesday afternoon, Pikangikum Chief Amanda Sainnawap said evacuation efforts have so far focused on the community's most vulnerable residents, including elders, children and families, all of whom are now safely out.

Sainnawap said the fire is burning to the south and west of Pikangikum, on land that has been earmarked for expansion.

The fly-in community of Pikangikum First Nation is located approximately 500 km northwest of Thunder Bay. A forest fire that started 5 km away was confirmed on Wednesday night and Chief Amanda Sainnawap has declared a state of emergency as the fire continued to grow and inch closer to the community. (CBC)

The expansion is needed, the statement said, as Pikangikum's population is growing, with 200 births last year alone. The community's high school is at capacity.

"If anything good can come of this terrible situation, it might be that the proposed expansion land regenerates from the ashes and provides a new future for our community," Sainnawap said.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry's Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services (AFFES) said the fire, known as Red Lake Fire 14, is about 3,800 hectares in size and not yet under control.

Sixteen four-person fire crews and two local sustained attack crews have been assigned to the fire.

AFFES fire information officer Chris Marchand said an incident management team will be assuming control of suppression efforts on Tuesday.

Crews working on parts of the fire nearest to the community have set up sprinklers on homes, buildings and infrastructure.

The fire was first reported last Wednesday. Marchand said the cause remains under investigation.