Forest fire smoke leads to evacuation

The Canadian Press
Salmaan Farooqui

Smoke from an increasing number of forest fires in Northwestern Ontario has prompted the evacuation of a First Nation in the region, officials said Tuesday.
Deb MacLean, a fire information officer with the province’s forest fire fighting centre in Dryden, Ont., said there have been a rapidly-rising number of fires in the region, with up to 30 new fires a day and a current total of 155 blazes in the area.
While no communities are imminently at risk because of the fires, smoke has been affecting communities in the area, she noted.
That smoke, as well as an unrelated power outage, was what led the Nibinamik First Nation to declare an emergency and ask for an evacuation Saturday night, the community’s chief said.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry said it had evacuated 354 people by airplane from the First Nation since Saturday.
Chief Johnny Yellowhead said those community members, as well as 79 others from the First Nation, have been set up in hotels in Kapuskasing, Ont.
“It’s very overwhelming, there’s a lot of distress,” noted Yellowhead.
“People are worried about their pets and their campgrounds, their personal belongings. . . .
“It’s [frustrating] for the community members,” he added. “They want to go home.”
Seven people from the First Nation volunteered to stay behind to help the ministry in its efforts to monitor and maintain the community, Yellowhead said.
Two contractors, two nurses, and one ministry employee also still were in the community, the ministry noted.
MacLean said it had been a slow year overall for fires in the region, but August has seen a high number of fires in a condensed area.
“In 2017, we had a quiet spring and early summer, and then we started to get storm systems tracking through after a period of dry weather,” she explained, saying lightning from the storms is what had sparked some of the fires.
While forecasted rain is expected to help firefighters battle the blaze, MacLean said that rain is a “double-edged” sword because of the lightning that could accompany it.
She said the risk for fires will range from “high” to “extreme” during the upcoming weekend.
Firefighting aircrafts have been called in from Quebec and Minnesota to help fight the blazes in the area, McLean noted.
For the Nibinamik First Nation, it’s not the first time the community has dealt with the impact of a forest fire.
In 1993, Yellowhead said a fire came up to the community, burning two outhouses.