Thunder Bay

Residents flee forest fire near Ontario's Pikangikum First Nation

Some 2,000 people have left Pikangikum First Nation since a forest fire broke out a week ago near the fly-in community about 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, Ont.

Officials trying to keep families together as evacuees relocate across province

Students in Pikangikum First Nation line up as a Hercules aircraft prepares to board evacuees from the community northwest of Thunder Bay, Ont., due to the forest fire. (supplied)

Some 2,000 people have left Pikangikum First Nation since a forest fire broke out a week ago near the fly-in community about 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, Ont.

According to Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox, evacuations are expected to continue on Wednesday, as officials may now need to go door to door to check if any residents are still home.

"There were reports that the smoke has reduced within the community, but that evacuation is still recommended," Fox said.

He said the focus right now is to "keep the families together," and provide resources and supplies to those who are staying in communities across Ontario, as well as Winnipeg.

"I've gotten reports from people in Timmins and some of the issues that are arising is that there are no interpreters ... because it's a Cree area ... and Ojibway and Cree are two different languages," Fox said.

Gathering rooms set up 

According to Fox, many residents have "self-evacuated" through Taxi Bay — a landing about 30 minutes away by boat, giving evacuees access to a road that leads them to Red Lake.

"It's a matter of trying to account for them now and asking the self-evacuees to register or report that they have left," he said, as "stations are set up in every township," including Sioux Lookout, Dryden and Winnipeg.

Fox said Chief Amanda Sainnawap has decided to stay back in the community to ensure all residents have left their homes.

Communities across northwestern Ontario are hosting evacuees. (CBC)

"I spoke to the chief yesterday ... and she's still there and she said it's kind of strange. There's about 2,000 evacuees gone, to their reports, but it looks like a ghost town, she said. It seems like everyone is gone, but she doesn't know for sure."

Gathering rooms are being set up at hotels for elders and families to get together, have tea and socialize, Fox said, but more resources and supplies are needed to help those who have left their homes.

"We have not got a report about on how the [evacuees] are doing or what they need," he said. "I think it's anything from supplies, to food ... so there's a whole number of issues that haven't risen but may continue to arise due to the sudden evacuation that had to happen."

Air support on standby

Fox said the next step for the community is to ensure "the houses are empty" and everyone who needs to leave the community has done so.

According to the Canadian Armed Forces, the need for military airlift capabilities in Pikangikum in the last 48 hours, has waned, "as it has been deemed that the province of Ontario, through the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry's contractual arrangements ... is more than capable to satisfy the need at this time."

Military air support remained on standby Wednesday, officials said, and could be reactivated if needed.

Possibility of showers

A special air quality statement has been in effect in the community since the fire started last week. Although winds from the northwest are expected to help direct the smoke away on Wednesday afternoon, officials with Environment Canada said an air quality statement will remain in effect until at least the end of the week, as the wind tends to change direction by the evening.

"Right now we are seeing winds fairly light and variable, not from any one dominant direction, but as we go through the afternoon hours, we're expecting those winds to come more out of the northwest, which should actually blow most of the smoke away from the community," a warning preparedness meteorologist Geoff Coulson told CBC News.

He said by Wednesday night and overnight into Thursday, officials are expecting the winds to "come back around ... from the east," which could blow more smoke from the forest fire back into the community.

Officials from Environment Canada said more smoke could be drifting into the community on Wednesday night and into Thursday as the wind changes direction. (Ontario Forest Fires/Twitter)

There's also a small chance of showers during the week, Coulson said, but there is some "unsettled weather" coming in from Manitoba on Friday and into the weekend.

"The major low-pressure system coming in from Manitoba, if it goes right over the area, it could give fairly widespread shower activity," he said. "But if this low pressure tracks a little bit further to the north, the activity could be more scattered."

He said officials have been keeping a close eye on the wind and co-ordinating with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to keep them updated on any changes they see.

'Minimal fire growth'

Despite the minimal rainfall in Pikangikum First Nation, officials with the ministry of natural resources and forestry are expecting "minimal fire growth over the next few days."

"Pikangikum has received fairly minimal rain fall over the past 48 hours, unlike other areas of the region," said fire information officer Chris Marchand. "But that lower fire behaviour and lighter winds have allowed good progress to be made." 

He said firefighters are preventing further spread of the fire by closing the "gaps between the hose lines."

Currently, 14 fire crews and various support staff are assigned to the blaze, and additional support is expected on Wednesday.

The fire covers more than 3,800 hectares, Marchand said, to the east and south of Pikangikum. Its edge is roughly 2.5 kilometres from the community's airport, he said. 

The cause of the fire is still under investigation and Marchand said it is "very difficult" to determine when it will be under control.