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More than 1,700 people flown from Pikangikum as forest fire burns nearby

Nearly half of the residents of Pikangikum First Nation have been flown out of the northern community as a 3,800-hectare forest fire continues to burn just a few kilometres away.

The Canadian Armed Forces continue to evacuate Pikangikum First Nation, which is being threatened by a 3,800-hectare forest fire burning a few kilometres away. So far, more than 1,700 Pikangikum residents have been transported out of the community on Hercules aircraft. (Christina Jung / CBC)

Nearly half of the residents of Pikangikum First Nation have been flown out of the northern community, as a 3,800-hectare forest fire continues to burn just a few kilometres away.

The Canadian Armed Forces said Sunday that more than 1,700 Pikangikum residents have left the community, which has a population of about 3,800.

“They’re still making trips,” said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox. “There’s still the concern that there’s a threat to the town.”

“If the wind shifts and picks up unfavourably, the town’s at great risk, given they cannot put out the fire,” he said. “The number one priority right now is the lives of the people that are there.”

The Pikangikum residents are being taken to a number of cities in Ontario and Manitoba, including Thunder Bay, which is currently host to about 240 people from the community.

The other host cities and towns include:

  • Cochrane, with more than 240 evacuees.
  • Kapuskasing, with more than 730 evacuees.
  • Smooth Rock Falls, with about 125 evacuees.
  • Timmins, with about 200 evacuees.

Dryden, Red Lake, Sioux Lookout, and Hearst are also hosting evacuees from Pikangikum, but numbers weren’t immediately available.

Red Lake Mayor Fred Mota said his community has not been officially designated as a host community by the province. All the Pikangikum evacuees in his community came there on their own and not as part of official evacuation efforts.

“Through the Indian Friendship Centre in Red Lake, they’re receiving support through that agency as well as other community members,” Mota said. “We’re a very supportive community, and we will definitely assist in any way we can once we’re asked to.”

Mota said the number of evacuees in Red Lake isn’t known. Since the evacuees are going there on their own, they’re likely staying with friends or family — only five Pikagikum residents were staying at the town’s Indian Friendship Centre as of Monday afternoon.

“It would be hard for me to actually put a number on it unless people actually come through and register, which they’re not doing, obviously, because we’re not designated as a host community by the provincial government,” Mota said.

A number of communities in Northwestern Ontario are hosting residents of Pikangikum First Nation, which is being evacuated due to forest fires burning nearby. (CBC)

He said the town is ready to be an official host community, and has told the government that, as well.

“We have a large arena, and with the assistance from Red Cross and other community organizations, we’re thinking we might be able to host up to 200 people,” Mota said.

However, Red Lake is hosting a mine rescue competition, and hotels are booked up until the end of the week.

On Sunday, the Canadian Armed Forces conducted five evacuation flights from Pikangikum, bringing 320 residents to Winnipeg using four Hercules aircraft.

The fire itself, known as Red Lake Fire 14, is burning to the south and east of Pikangikum. On Monday afternoon, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) said the fire was just over 3,800 hectares in size.

Fire burning close to power lines

“The firefighters are trying to keep the fire under control, and ensure that the community doesn’t get engulfed by flames,” Fox said. “We’re hoping for the best, that they get control of this fire.”

MNRF fire information officer Chris Marchand told CBC News on Monday morning that some expected rainfall in the area could be beneficial to firefighting efforts.

“Amounts of precipitation are expected, from a trace to five millimetres, with some local higher amounts possible where storms might occur,” Marchand said. “There may be more in the way of precipitation moving into Tuesday, so that’s a bit of good news.”

Marchand said while the fire is the largest it’s been since it started, it’s growing away from the community.

“To this point, it’s been moving to the south and the east,” he said. “That’s largely due to the north-northwesterly winds.”

Air quality alert issued

However, the wind direction changed on Monday, and winds are now coming mostly from the south. Marchand said the winds are light to moderate, but are still pushing smoke back into the community.

Environment Canada issued a special air quality statement on Monday due to the smoke, stating “high levels of air pollution are possible into Tuesday due to smoke from forest fires.”

“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 alert states.

Marchand said that currently, sprinklers are set up to protect key infrastructure and buildings, and heavy equipment is in use along the fire’s northern edge. An incident management team will also be brought on-site this week, and will assume command of suppression efforts there.

Firefighters there are constructing a physical fire break because of the fire’s proximity to power lines.

In a statement to CBC News, Wataynikaneyap Power said the power lines and substation in the area are operating, and power is still flowing to Pikangikum.

There has, however, been some minor, localized damage to the lines. The company said it has conducted an aerial patrol, and plans to more thoroughly inspect the power lines and substation to ensure all equipment is operating normally when it’s safe to do so.

While wind from the north helped to keep the fire away from Pikangikum First Nation on Sunday, officials from Environment Canada issued an air quality statement for the area as shifting winds pushed smoke back into the community on Monday. ( Ontario Forest Fires / Twitter)

The fire has also disrupted phone service in Pikangikum and several other northern communities in the area, although Bell Canada said internet service has not been affected. The company plans to fly technicians to the site when it’s safe to do so to make necessary repairs and restore service.

Sixteen fire ranger crews are battling the fire, which is listed as not under control. It was first reported on Wednesday, leading Pikangikum Chief Amanda Sainnawap to declare a state of emergency that night.

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